Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

North Carolinians speak out against fracking: Are elected officials listening?

Monday, October 20th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

More than two dozen environmental and social justice groups came together recently to hand deliver 59,500 petition signatures to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, calling on him and other elected officials to reinstate the ban on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in the state.

Groups of the Frack Free N.C. Alliance, which include environmental organizations, environmental justice groups and grassroots organizations, have been working diligently all across the state to educate citizens about the potential impacts of fracking and encourage them to get involved. The nearly 60,000 petition signatures are a testament to the strong opposition to fracking throughout North Carolina.

Despite a forecast of rain, the organizations and supporters gathered at the governor’s office last Tuesday to rally and hold a press conference before hand delivering the petitions to McCrory’s staff (the governor, unsurprisingly, was unavailable to receive the petitions). Supporters held anti-fracking signs, images of North Carolina’s unique landscape, and art created by citizens portraying the dangers of fracking and the value of clean water.

The speakers came from all across the state, and included Kathy Rigsbee from Yadkin-Davie Against Fracking, an every-day citizen and mother turned activist, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for N.C., the founding organization of the Frack Free Alliance, and Luke Crawford from EnvironmentaLEE, a grassroots organization in Lee County, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the state.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices' North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the numerous grassroots organizations from western North Carolina that contributed significantly to the petition and the anti-fracking movement sweeping across the state. Those organizations include the Coalition Against Fracking in western N.C., Frack Free Madison County, and community groups from Swain and Jackson counties.

As the sun came out, we began carrying boxes of the signed petitions into the governor’s office. As the petitions were passed from person to person and on into the building, elementary students on a field trip joined us in chanting “Frack Free N.C.!”

Governor McCrory has yet to acknowledge the concerns of the 59,500 signees on the petition, though it is clear that opposition to fracking across North Carolina has grown as more citizens learn about the risks associated with the practice.

In August and September, 1,800 North Carolinians attended Mining and Energy Commission hearings on the proposed rules to regulate fracking. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed fracking. The MEC reports that they received between 100,000-200,000 additional written comments addressing the rules and that the majority suggested the rules be strengthened. According to Commissioner Jim Womack, about half the comments were statements opposing fracking. Womack told reporters that those “didn’t really count.” Clearly, thousands of North Carolinians oppose fracking, the question is, are our elected officials listening to us?

The organizations and citizen groups of Frack Free N.C. promise to continue fighting to protect North Carolina’s air, water, communities, property values and way of life from the dangers of fracking.

Mountaintop Removal Promotes Lung Cancer

Friday, October 17th, 2014 - posted by thom

A map from The Human Cost of Coal showing the above-average number of lung cancer deaths per 100,000 people in Central Appalachian Counties.

The body of research linking mountaintop removal mining to lung cancer just got a whole lot stronger.

Using dust samples collected in communities near mountaintop removal mines, a new study conducted by Dr. Sudjit Luanpitpong and other West Virginia University researchers found a direct link between air pollution and tumor growth.

From Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette:

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Six years ago, researchers found a close correlation between living in proximity of mountaintop removal coal mining sites and lung cancer mortality rates, even after adjusting for factors like smoking, poverty, race, etc. That 2008 study is just one of more than 20 studies linking mountaintop removal to health issues in neighboring communities.

While people in Appalachia have been aware of this strong correlation, this new study linking dust from mountaintop removal sites directly to the growth of lung cancer cells is the first of its kind.

“To me, this is one of the most important papers that we’ve done,” said [Dr. Michael Hendryx], a co-author of the new paper. “There hasn’t been a direct link between environmental data and human data until this study.”

Hendryx said, “The larger implication is that we have evidence of environmental conditions in mining communities that promote human lung cancer. Previous studies … have been criticized for being only correlational studies of illness in mining communities, and with this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”

The coal industry and its allies in Congress have always been eager to dismiss claims that air and water pollution caused by mountaintop removal mining have any link to the high rates of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects, or the decrease in life expectancy that counties with heavy mining have experienced over the past two decades.

Will this study get them to finally change their tune? It’s almost certain it won’t. It will be up to those of us who care about the health of Appalachian communities to raise our voices and simply drown them out.

Click here to learn more about how mountaintop removal impacts health in Appalachia, or visit The Human Cost of Coal on iLoveMountains.org.

Corporate windfall lets N.C. utilities charge customers under outdated tax rate

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by brian
A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is tasked with regulating public utilities operating in the state and the rates they charge for services that millions of North Carolinians use every day.

So it’s no surprise that a decision by a majority (4-3) of the seven-member commission to allow Duke Energy and other utilities to charge customers using an outdated, and inflated, corporate tax rate is rankling their dissenting colleagues, government watchdogs and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.

As The Charlotte Observer reports, the commission (somehow) decided that even though the legislature cut North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5 percent last year, utilities can continue charging customers at 6.9 percent and pocket the difference.

In their dissent, three Democratic commissioners called the decision a corporate windfall that “allows the utilities to charge ratepayers in perpetuity to collect for taxes that the utilities no longer pay.” Yeah, it’s messed up.

The rate individual utilities, including electric, gas and water companies, are able to charge their customers could change the next time they seek rate adjustments. But even then, the dissenting commissioners warned, ratepayers will never be refunded the over-collected funds; the utilities have simply been afforded an unearned gain at the expense of North Carolina ratepayers.”

This is all pretty scary for several reasons. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fundamental disagreement between commissioners on the issue of “single-issue ratemaking,” or when and how adjustments in tax structures should influence the amount utility customers see on their bills.

Although Republican commissioners said they sympathized with the points made by the dissenting commissioners, they claimed that the “doctrine against single-issue ratemaking in full force in this state, designed to prevent changes to utility rates outside general rate cases, should be adhered to except in limited, closely circumscribed situations.”

“The insubstantial and immaterial changes at issue in this docket do not fit within the exception,” Republican commissioners wrote. “The limitations should be preserved to prevent single-issue ratemaking in the future when tax rates increase in insubstantial and immaterial ways.” No word on who decides what constitutes substantial and material changes, or why this shouldn’t be considered a limited, closely circumscribed situation.

But maybe they’re right. After all, Duke spokeswoman Lisa Parrish told The Charlotte Observer that, if Duke decides to stop sharing the tax savings with its ratepayers, its customers would only see a 17 cent increase on their monthly bill. Progress customers would pay 9 cents more each month.

Overall, the charges could help Duke Energy, Duke-Progress, Dominion North Carolina and PSNC Energy bring in around $21 million more a year.

That’s not so bad, right? Just ignore that you’re paying extra for a corporate tax rate that no longer exists. Parrish of Duke Energy also said that a little bump in North Carolinians’ electric bills wouldn’t really hurt them because it would go toward operating expenses or it could be spent on programs with broad community benefits. Hopefully they remember that when a real discussion about how to address the state’s coal ash problem comes up.

Another thing: You also may remember that HB 998, the bill that lowered corporate taxes in North Carolina, did much more than cut taxes for big corporations. It also more than doubled sales taxes on electricity from 3 percent to 7 percent. The commission approved a rate increase related to that change back in May, and over the summer, monthly bills of Duke customers increased by around 50 cents. Last I heard, the company isn’t sharing that burden with its customers.

Meanwhile, for three consecutive quarters, Duke has received a larger rate of return and rate of equity, the profit a company generates with shareholders’ money, than authorized by state regulators, in this case, the utilities commission. The Charlotte Business Journal reported that it is the first time since 2003 that the utility has significantly exceeded the returns set by the commission.

Finally, it’s understandable that the vast majority of the commission’s activities are not scrutinized the way major decisions, such as the 5.1 percent rate increase it granted Duke Energy last year or the merger between Duke and Progress Energy that the commission approved the year before, have been. But in this case, the commission used its discretion to not include Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat expected to run for governor in 2016, or the Public Staff, which represents the interest of consumers on issues before the commission.

Now Cooper says he plans to appeal the decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the Public Staff are weighing an appeal.

Oh, and the eventual decision of whether Duke will be allowed to saddle its ratepayers with the cost of cleaning up its leaky, polluting coal ash ponds across the state — that quagmire will land in the commission’s lap too.

This isn’t just about about the pennies added to our monthly electric bills — even though those pennies are piling up and becoming dollars — and, as the dissenting commissioners wrote, for families struggling to pay their utility bills, “every cent counts.”

It’s bigger than that. It’s about the commission adhering to the first tenet of its mission statement: to provide just and reasonable rates and charges for public utility services.

Community Members Gather for Blue Ridge Energy Efficiency Kick-off

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by Eliza Laubach
Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Did you miss the party? Last Thursday, Energy Savings for Appalachia hosted a launch party for our new campaign focusing on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.

Energy efficiency advocates and residents facing high energy costs gathered in our downtown Boone office to hear about the campaign and how they can get involved in our outreach efforts. Local business owners, students, farmers and families spilled out of the conference room as we brainstormed different ways to educate the community about our exciting High Country Home Energy Makeover contest and to gather signatures for our petition calling on Blue Ridge Electric to provide more energy efficiency programs.

What are we asking for? Blue Ridge Electric provides electricity to Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and some of Wilkes and Avery counties, excluding the town of Boone. Last winter, thousands of people served by Blue Ridge Electric could not afford to pay their bills and their electricity service was shut off. This is of particular concern given that 23 percent of Blue Ridge Electric members live at or below the poverty line, and we want to help families find solutions to their high electric bills.

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

That is where on-bill energy efficiency financing comes in. As Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes, said at the party, most people do not have the disposable income to make large-scale home energy upgrades but would greatly benefit from them. With on-bill financing, the cooperative utility provides a loan for members to pay for home energy retrofits, and the loan is repaid on the member’s electric bill. Because so much energy is saved through the efficiency upgrades, the member’s electric bill is always lower than it was, even while they pay back the loan! By providing on-bill financing, utilities can help a wider range of homeowners and even renters make improvements to their home that would lower their energy use and electric bill.

So far, Blue Ridge Electric has rejected the idea of offering an on-bill financing program, citing lack of substantial member support as one of their primary reasons. This came as a surprise to Blue Ridge Electric members at the launch party. We are working to demonstrate that there actually is significant member support by circulating a petition, presenting to community groups and going door-to-door in local neighborhoods. Additionally, the Home Energy Makeover contest will not only help a few families whose homes could use efficiency upgrades now, it will also highlight a need for an on-bill finance program.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Chatter filled the room as large sheets of paper were filled with names of local businesses, community organizations, churches and other places where we can reach community members. Volunteers came up with innovative methods of outreach, such as utilizing technology or using church signboards, and signed up to help us with our ongoing canvassing project.

It was exciting to see folks be so enthused about our campaign, to hear a homeowner’s personal story detailing how much energy efficiency programs could help, and to strive for inclusion in the process of organizing a community around an issue.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings team has followed viable pathways of outreach, but the power of people coming together to focus their hands and hearts on helping us, which in turn helps them, enhances the benefit of our outreach, as involvement sparks meaning within concerned community members.

October is National Energy Action Month and National Cooperative Month, and there is no better time than now to focus on our local electric cooperative to provide services that will help members lower their energy use. Sign our Blue Ridge Electric petition or send a letter to your utility. Send us an email at energysavings@appvoices.org for volunteer opportunities, and, if you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric and are in need of support for reducing your energy costs, apply for the contest!

The reclamation myth, it’s still happening too

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 - posted by thom

{ Editor’s Note } A 2014 study on post-mining reclamation efforts found that “There is no evidence that mitigation is meeting the objectives of the [Clean Water Act] and looking forward there is no reason to believe this will change unless new mitigation requirements and scientifically rigorous assessments are put into place.”

It seems that whenever a picture of an active mountaintop removal mine site is posted online or shared on social media, someone steps in to comment that coal companies “put it back” or that, a few years after they reclaim the land “you won’t be able to tell the difference.”

For years, Appalachian Voices has been combating misleading claims about reclamation used by the industry and pro-coal politicians — especially the myth that mountaintop removal is necessary because it creates flat land for economic development. In a 2010 survey of mountaintop removal sites, we found that, of the 1.2 million acres of leveled Appalachian mountains, around 90 percent of reclaimed mine sites are not being used for economic development. In fact, most are just rocky grasslands not being used for anything at all.

LEARN MORE: Post-Mountaintop Removal Reclamation of Mountain Summits for Economic Development in Appalachia

Industry pic

The industry argues that it does a good job of reclaiming the land, and will use a handful of good examples of reclamation with a few nice pictures, and pretend that this is the norm. I particularly like this tweet from the West Virginia Coal Association a few weeks back.

As you can see it’s basically a pretty picture of the sun coming through the clouds with a caption that reads “100 Years of Coal Mining and West Virginia Remains Wild and Wonderful. This proves mining is a temporary land use.”

I can’t figure out how this picture “proves mining is a temporary land use.” I suppose the picture shows that companies have not blown up those particular mountains. Or the sky.

The reality of reclamation usually looks more like this…

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Or this…

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Or this…

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The failure to recapture the beauty that was once a 300-million-year-old mountain covered in old-growth, biodiverse forest is tragic, but it’s not the only problem with reclamation. Attempts to mitigate water pollution have repeatedly failed.

A 2014 University of Maryland study shows that mitigation and reclamation have totally failed to protect stream health.

According to the study:

Loss of aquatic biodiversity below [mountaintop removal] mining operations is well documented and there is no evidence that these downstream impacts decline over time–mine sites reclaimed over 20 years ago still contribute to significant degradation of water quality.

Overall the reports provide no evidence that stream mitigations being implemented for coal mining in the southern Appalachian states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia are meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act to replace lost or degraded natural resource values and functions.

LEARN MORE: Mountaintop Mine Reclamation Not Adequately Restoring Affected Streams, Study Finds – Bloomberg BNA

The coal industry is blowing up mountains in Appalachia. They are not putting them back together again. The industry is polluting and burying streams, and they are not finding a way to fix them.

In 2009, the Obama administration promised to overhaul regulations meant to protect Appalachian communities and their waterways from mountaintop removal.

Yet, five years later, mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening. Until the Obama administration and Congress take serious actions, no amount of reclamation is going to fix the problems the mining is leaving behind.

Employees of DEP-certified lab conspired to violate Clean Water Act

Thursday, October 9th, 2014 - posted by brian
An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act.

An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act.

We learned some unsettling news from West Virginia yesterday afternoon. The Charleston Gazette reports that an employee of a state-certified company pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act after he faked compliant water quality samples for coal companies between 2008 and 2013.

John W. Shelton, who worked as a technician and then a field supervisor for Appalachian Labs Inc., a Beckley, W.Va., firm, admitted to diluting water samples taken from mine pollution discharge points with clean water, among other unlawful measures taken, to ensure pollution levels were in compliance with permitted limits. Prosecutors say Appalachian Labs conducts water sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia, but for now it’s unclear what mine sites or coal companies could be implicated in the case.

As Ken Ward Jr. points out in The Gazette, this crime is a serious cause for concern, since state and federal agencies rely heavily on self-reported data to determine if coal companies are obeying the law. But honestly, while we’re appalled, it is hard to be surprised by this latest discovery. We have some experience with misreporting of water monitoring data that has taken place in Central Appalachia in recent years.

The way this story is coming together suggests a frightening collusion between employees at a lab that maintained certification from DEP. We know from the plea agreement that Shelton did not act alone. Check out the section titled “The Conspiracy to Violate the Clean Water Act” that begins on page 4. But the truly damning language comes in the following section, which states the “objects of the conspiracy were to increase the profitability of Appalachian by avoiding certain costs associated with full compliance with the Clean Water Act … and to thus encourage and maintain for Appalachian the patronage of [its] customers.”

Shelton faces up to five years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. The investigation into Appalachian Labs, however, is ongoing and is being handled by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, the FBI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Following is a statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:

The discovery that a lab employee in West Virginia knowingly altered sampling procedures to assure that monitoring reports submitted for coal companies would be in compliance with the Clean Water Act raises serious questions about the reliability of monitoring reports for the coal industry across Central Appalachia.

False reporting of water quality data from mines in Central Appalachia is not unheard of. In 2010, Appalachian Voices uncovered water monitoring reports that contained duplicated data for the three largest mountaintop removal companies in Kentucky. During the period they were submitting erroneous monitoring reports, these companies never reported a single pollution violation.

No criminal charges have been brought in Kentucky in relation to those cases. In light of the charges brought in West Virginia, however, we have to wonder how widespread these criminal practices are. This shocking discovery further highlights the extreme need for state agencies to seriously reevaluate their enforcement efforts and for the EPA to step in when the states do not properly enforce the law.

Updated Oct. 21: Under oath in federal court, Shelton told a judge that coal companies “put a lot of pressure” on labs to get good water data. Read more in The Charleston Gazette.

Introducing the High Country Home Makeover Contest

Thursday, October 9th, 2014 - posted by cat

homeenergymakeover3

Homeowners in North Carolina’s High Country have a new opportunity to make their homes more energy efficient and save money on their monthly electricity bills for years to come.

Appalachian Voices has launched the High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest, covering several western NC counties whose residents can enter to win a grand prize of at least $3,000 in home energy improvements. Two runners-up will each win up to $1,000 of energy efficiency improvements on their homes.

The deadline to enter is Saturday, Nov. 15. Only residential members of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. — in Alleghany, Ashe, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and parts of Avery, Alexander and Wilkes counties — are eligible. For background, see the press kit. For contest details and the application, see our web page here.

We’re delighted to have four local businesses join us in sponsoring the contest: Blue Ridge Energy Works, LLC, High Country Energy Solutions, Inc., HomEfficient, and Sunny Day Homes, Inc. These local companies will help perform the home improvements for the three winners. The Blumenthal Foundation and ResiSpeak are also sponsoring the contest.

“Home energy efficiency is the single most direct way you can make a contribution to a clean energy future,” says Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes. “You know when you retrofit your house that you have reduced the need for fossil fuels to be dug up out of the ground and combusted.”

Appalachian Voices is hosting the contest as part of our broader campaign to generate public support for BREMCO to offer loans to its members to pay for home energy efficiency upgrades that can be paid back by the money they save each month on their electric bills. Such “on-bill financing” programs have been extremely successful in other places, including in areas of North Carolina served by rural electric cooperatives.

Hail to the Chief — Lenny Kohm, 1939-2014

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - posted by Jamie Goodman

lenny_kohm

With heavy hearts, we must announce that last week the world lost a true warrior for environmental justice and human rights, and Appalachian Voices lost a colleague and true friend.

Lenny Kohm’s legacy stretches from coast to coast, and from the wilds of Alaska down to the sunny Caribbean seaside. He influenced everyone he met, whether at a meeting about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, presenting a slideshow on mountaintop removal, or just enjoying a beverage with new friends in Jamaica.

As one person said so aptly in a tribute on Facebook: “Lenny you built an army of good, one person at a time, and we will keep fighting for you.”

Although semi-retired, Lenny was living life fully, as he always does, working on his “Boots-on-the-Ground” project and planning his next trip to Jamaica, which was only a few weeks away. He was found in his home, in his bed. He was 74.

We will miss you, Chief.

UPDATE: A celebration of his life is scheduled to take place Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 in Boone, N.C. (location TBD). Details will be posted on a website created in Lenny’s honor, and the website is also accepting tributes and remembrances. Visit lennykohm.org.

A huge win: Gainesville enacts policy to stop using mountaintop removal coal

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - posted by matt
Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

At a time when Congress can’t seem to conduct even routine business and nearly half of the country still denies climate change, that old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” can seem a little quaint and dated, if not hopelessly idealistic.

But earlier this month, a group of citizens in Gainesville, Fla., proved the truth of those words. Because of the heroic efforts of a small group of citizens, Gainesville became the first city in America to enact a policy to curtail — and possibly eliminate altogether — its reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

A cheer went up in the packed city hall chambers when the city commission voted 5-2 for a policy designed to break the city’s longstanding reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia to power its electric grid. This victory was the culmination of three and a half years of work that included five hearings by the city commission, hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and dozens of meetings with city commissioners.

The policy’s passage, championed by city commissioner Lauren Poe and supported by three Democrats and two Republicans on the commission, proved that bipartisanship is still alive in some corners of the country and that democracy can still work the way it was intended to; responsive to the will of citizens instead of just private interests with the power to make unlimited campaign contributions.

At the hearing on Sept. 18, staff of Appalachian Voices gave commissioners a virtual tour of some of the mountaintop removal mines that had supplied coal to Gainesville in the past. Suppliers included the Samples mine in West Virginia, which the late Appalachian hero Larry Gibson fought for decades to prevent the destruction of his beloved Kayford Mountain. Another supplier was the nearby Twilight Surface Mine, which was responsible for turning the community of Lindytown into a ghost town, as The New York Times powerfully eulogized in this 2011 story.

Use the arrows on the slideshow below to see excerpts of the presentation Appalachian Voices shared with the Gainesville City Commission:

There are no mountains within 100 miles of Gainesville. So how a group called Gainesville Loves Mountains became one of the city’s most active and influential advocacy groups is an interesting story.

The group’s founder, Jason Fults, first became aware of mountaintop removal as a student at Berea College in eastern Kentucky. After graduating and moving back to Gainesville, he was horrified to learn the local power plant operated by Gainesville Regional Utilities, the Deerhaven Generating Station, was purchasing most of its coal from some of the biggest and most destructive mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

But Jason didn’t stop with being horrified; he resolved to do what it takes to break Gainesville’s connection to mountaintop removal, and he found others willing to makes the same commitment. Three and a half years later they succeeded — or at least they’ve come very close. But the battle is not over quite yet. The policy enacted by the city ensures that Gainesville Regional Utilities will not purchase coal mined using mountaintop removal as long as it has bids from other types of mines that are not more than 5 percent higher than bids from mountaintop removal operators.

Based on my experience, that should generally be sufficient to ensure the city does not purchase mountaintop removal coal. If bids from mountaintop removal operators do come in at least 5 percent lower than other bids, however, the utility can come back to the commission to request special dispensation to purchase the cheaper, but in many ways more costly, coal. Several commissioners indicated that they may still very well choose to purchase from the more expensive non-mountaintop removal coal suppliers if that’s the case, but it’s going to require a contentious vote. And, if that time comes, the folks at Gainesville Loves Mountains will undoubtedly pull out all the stops to ensure the city doesn’t vote to purchase mountaintop removal coal.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices' staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices’ staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

The big question is whether other cities can follow Gainesville’s lead. The short answer is that some can, though there are not many other cities served by a municipally-owned utility that operates its own coal-fired power plant and buys coal from Central Appalachia. There are a few such examples — the city of Orlando, Fla., for example — but folks who are customers of private investor-owned utilities or municipal utilities that purchase power from investor-owned utilities will have a very different challenge on their hands if they want to ensure companies like Duke Energy, American Electric Power or Dominion Resources stop purchasing coal from mountaintop removal mines.

The good news is that the city of Gainesville paved the way by coming up with a thoughtful and substantive policy that also provides some protection to ratepayers. That’s important because utilities have successfully used scare tactics about the potential for increases in electricity prices to defeat every previous attempt to pass bills banning the use of mountaintop removal in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. Even the students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill were unable to get a policy passed to ban purchases of mountaintop removal coal from the power plant on campus because of the scare tactics employed by the operators of the plant.

Fortunately, the Gainesville policy provides a model that should alleviate those fears, and we can hope that students at UNC and Michigan State University, where local power plants are still purchasing mountaintop removal coal, will try again now that the City of Gainesville has led the way.

The People’s Climate March: Hope makes a comeback

Saturday, September 27th, 2014 - posted by Maggie Cozens
Approximately 100 Appalachian State University  students traveled to New York for the People's Climate March.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students traveled to New York for the People’s Climate March. Photo by Maggie Cozens.

“I know we’re exhausted; my feet hurt…actually my everything hurts,” said Dave Harman of 350 Boone, as our busload of students headed back toward North Carolina. “But I just wanted to say that this went beyond my wildest expectations. I’m still glowing from today.”

As we slowly wended our way out of Manhattan, tired and feet aching, I found myself struggling to process the overwhelming feeling that pervaded every inch of the nearly 4-mile long procession earlier that day. The feeling saturated every piece of artwork and humble homemade sign, resonated in each drumroll and singing voice, and illuminated the eyes of every one of the 400,000 marchers in attendance. Such was the overpowering feeling of hope at the People’s Climate March.

See more photos from the march.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students took part in Sunday’s march and happily found Appalachia well-represented upon arrival. We could not walk two feet without running into someone carrying a sign calling for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

One of the Appalachian State totems was garnished with a People’s Climate March sign that read “I’m marching for the end of mountaintop removal.” It was one among countless others, and no demographic, environmental or social issue went unrepresented. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, indigenous groups, politicians and celebrities joined together and walked in solidarity. The student section was alight with passionate youth from across the country, eager to roll up their sleeves and build a better future, as bright yellow and orange signs ebulliently bobbed up and down along the sea of marchers like rising suns.

The diversity of the marchers was a beautiful sight to behold, but perhaps more stunning was the common thread running between them. Everyone was united in their confidence to affect change; the understanding that tackling the factors behind climate change — the environmental degradation caused by poorly regulated industries, inadequate government involvement, overconsumption and our growth-obsessed economy — holds the solution to a myriad of interconnected global issues today. It quickly became apparent at the march that climate change is as much a political, social, and cultural issue as it is an environmental one. And that efforts to address the problem could lead to a transformation as expansive as climate change itself.

Later that evening on the bus, Dave mentioned in all his years of activism he had never seen anything like the People’s Climate March. The shift in morale was so strong it was almost palpable. In New York and in every sister march around the world, the air was electrified with hope and faith in the future. This was perhaps no more evident than at 1 p.m., when a moment of silence erupted into an explosion of noise. Every marcher raised their voice in opposition to climate change; shouting for each other, the future, and the planet. Dave remarked that the clamor was hair-raising, a sonic “atomic bomb” filled with promise and power.

After attending Sunday’s march, it is hard to shake that feeling of hope. It is disturbing how lacking it had been beforehand, but its return is beyond welcome and reassuring. In the face of such a daunting and massive problem as climate change, it is easy to throw up your hands in exasperation and become discouraged. But after this weekend we should realize this problem is not insurmountable and, if the numbers are any indication, that no one is fighting it alone.

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