Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Supreme Court delivers blow to EPA’s mercury rule

Monday, June 29th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo: ©hicagoenergy, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo: Creative Commons/Flickr

In a major decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Environmental Protection Agency did not properly consider costs when it created a rule to limit mercury emissions from power plants.

Finalized in 2012, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard is one of the Obama administration’s most significant efforts to combat harmful air pollution and protect public health. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can bypass the body’s placental and blood-brain barriers, threatening cognitive development and the nervous system.

The rule, which also targets pollutants such as arsenic, chromium and hydrochloric acid gas is expected to prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks each year.

While difficult to quantify, the rule’s the health benefits would well exceed the estimated $9.6 billion cost in annual compliance costs. In fact, a formal analysis found the quantifiable benefits of the rule could reach $80 billion each year — as much as $9 for every dollar spent.

Still, industry groups and several states argue the EPA did not adequately consider costs when determining whether regulating mercury under the Clean Air Act is “appropriate and necessary.”

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the EPA, leading the challengers to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. Today’s 5-4 ruling remands the case back to the D.C. Circuit Court, which could order the EPA to reconsider the costs of compliance or to craft a new plan to regulate mercury altogether.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Campaign Director Kate Rooth:

Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a disappointing setback; for far too long the costs of unregulated pollution to human health and the environment have not been adequately weighed in determining our energy future. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard is a critical component of the Obama administration’s effort to curb pollution from power plants. Already this rule has resulted in many of the oldest and dirtiest coal plants being retired or updated and it is critical that these safeguards remain in place in order to protect communities and future generations from mercury and other toxic air pollution.

The Supreme Court decision still provides a clear path forward for the EPA to limit dangerous mercury and other toxic pollutants in our air. We are confident that the agency will be able to respond to the court’s ruling by demonstrating that the health costs of continued power plant pollution greatly outweigh the costs of the rule itself.

Appalachian legislators give POWER+ the cold shoulder

Friday, June 26th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

TAKE ACTION: Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

Virginia’s coal-bearing counties would directly benefit from the adoption of the POWER+ plan, a proposal in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget that would direct more than a billion dollars to Central Appalachia.

But the U.S. House budget cuts Virginia entirely out of the forward-thinking Abandoned Mined Lands funding reforms that were spelled out in the POWER+ Plan. That component of the plan would send $30 million directly to the Virginia coalfields for economic development and put laid-off miners back to work cleaning up the messes left by coal companies.

Last week, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee passed a budget bill the leaves out any mention of POWER+.

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

For more background, we recommend this piece by Naveena Sadasivam for InsideClimate News, which details the curious quiet around POWER+ and how the plan has been pulled into the partisan bickering that’s embroiled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the 2016 budget process as a whole.

Under the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, sites that pose a threat to safety are prioritized over sites that offer a potential economic benefit if cleaned up. While this program has reduced potential hazards in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia and the U.S., it has done little to positively impact local economies.

The POWER+ Plan, however, calls for funds to be used for projects that not only improve the environment and reduce hazards, but also create an economic benefit for local economies.

There’s still time for both House and Senate to include the meaningful funding proposals outlined in POWER+. But in order for that to happen we need to make sure that Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, hear the clear message from you to make sure Appalachia gets this much needed funding!

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

Duke expands coal ash cleanup, but leaves N.C. communities in danger

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 - posted by amy
Duke Energy announced plans for its future coal ash cleanup efforts. But the fates of several coal ash sites threatening North Carolina communities remain unclear.

Duke Energy announced plans for its future coal ash cleanup efforts. But the fates of several coal ash sites threatening North Carolina communities remain unclear.

On Tuesday, Duke Energy announced it plans to excavate coal ash from ponds at three power plant sites in North Carolina, along with two more at its South Carolina facilities.

But the fates of several sites that pose significant threats to drinking water and nearby communities remain unclear.

Duke is already required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act to clean up four sites deemed “high-priority” by lawmakers. By recommending additional sites be excavated, Duke is committed to cleaning up ponds at seven of its 14 power plants across the state. That is, as long as the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is on board.

The total amount of coal ash now planned for excavation is 35.4 tons of ash. Duke plans to move the excavated ash to lined landfills or use it as structural fill material.

Although the company has now committed to cleaning up the ash at half of the sites in North Carolina, the majority of the ash polluting the state’s waterways remains largely unaddressed. As for the seven sites not included in today’s announcement, the company says further environmental testing is needed to assess contamination and determine clean up plans.

Importantly, the sites Duke has not committed to excavating are the largest in the state, including the 12.5 million tons of ash at Belews Creek, the 11.5 million tons at G.G. Allen, and the 27 million tons of coal ash stored at the Buck and Marshall plants. That amounts to more than 70 million tons — the bulk of Duke’s coal ash — still sitting in leaking, unlined ponds seeping and discharging into our waterways.

Around these unaddressed sites, nearly 500 households have been warned by the N.C. Department of Health that their well water is unsafe for drinking or to use for cooking due to contamination possibly associated with nearby coal ash ponds.

While Duke’s announcement is welcome news for the communities living near Moncure, Goldsboro, Lumberton and those who rely on the Cape Fear, Neuse and Lumber rivers for drinking water, others worry they’re being left behind and are concerned about potential harm caused by coal ash stored in landfills — and who is responsible for it.

A year and a half after the Dan River spill, Duke is certainly taking steps in the right direction. But there is still much work to be done for the company to prove it is the “good neighbor” it claims to be.

As the company’s coal ash cleanup efforts expand, we have just a few questions: Does Duke plan to leave more than 70 million tons of toxic ash in unlined ponds polluting North Carolina’s waterways? Will the company ensure the health and safety of workers and residents throughout the clean up process?

Until Duke makes an announcement that takes into account the safety of all its current and future neighbors, we’ll hold our applause.

Learn about the threat of coal ash pollution. Stay up to date by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

High Country residents speak up to save energy

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly
Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation's CEO Doug Johnson.

Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation’s CEO Doug Johnson.

Visit our Energy Savings Action Center

Urge your utility provider to provide debt-free energy efficiency financing for your community.

On a sweltering day earlier this month, several residents of North Carolina’s High Country packed into cars and made what for some is a one-hour trip to the annual membership meeting of their rural electric cooperative.

The reason? To tell the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) Board of Directors they want incentives to improve their homes’ energy efficiency, specifically, though an “on-bill” financing loan program.

While this may sound too boring to encourage anyone to take hours out of their day to address the co-op board, the benefits of such a program are so exciting that they warranted the trip.

On-bill financing is a type of loan offered by utilities that pays for energy efficiency upgrades with no upfront cost to the homeowner or renter, making these improvements accessible to people of any income level. Loan recipients receive immediate savings on their electric bill after the upgrades, which may include insulation or air duct sealing. A portion of that monthly savings goes directly to the resident and the rest goes to the utility to pay back the cost of the upgrades.

These programs are designed so that no money ever comes out-of-pocket for the residents, who not only see immediate savings but also immediate improvements in the comfort of their homes and often their health. When all the upgrades are paid for (usually in five to ten years), the resident can see as much as a 40 percent reduction in their average monthly electric bill. Further, on-bill finance programs have substantial positive impacts for local economies and job creation.

The folks from North Carolina who traveled to BRE’s annual meeting wanted to advocate for these benefits. Mary Ruble, who, like almost anyone, could benefit from an on-bill financing program, spoke to the BRE board. She is hopeful that members will become more engaged so they too can voice the need for energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing.

“I know for myself I never really understood I was a member. It was just an electric bill,” she reflected.

Marisa Schor, another BRE member, spoke about being a renter and her limited ability to improve her home’s energy efficiency. “I can’t do anything about the insulation quality or efficiency of the heating system — I’m barely allowed to put nail holes in my walls,” Schor told the board.

Schor believes on-bill financing is part of the solution for her situation and for other renters. “What this program would do, however, is make it easy and convenient for landlords to increase the energy efficiency of their rental units,” said Schor. “As a tenant, this program would allow me the opportunity to easily reduce my energy consumption and would provide me with an easy, convenient and sustainable way to save money on my electric bill.”

BRE’s CEO Doug Johnson responded after each comment and assured the members that the co-op is seriously considering adopting an on-bill financing program for their members. In a press release after the meeting, Johnson stated publicly for the first time: “As we evolve into the utility of the future, key areas we are studying for programs to offer to members include renewables, more energy efficiency options, peak demand management, and a home weatherization/conservation program.”

Listen to a recorded presentation by Johnson here.

Electric co-op customers are actually members who own equal shares in the company and have the ability to significantly influence co-op decisions and direction. Appalachian Voices is working in western North Carolina and northeast Tennessee to connect folks with their electric co-ops and help them advocate for energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing.

This is especially important in the Southeast, where almost half of all co-op customers in the U.S. reside. The Southeast also accounts for almost half of electric co-op sales in the nation, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As electric co-op members continue to speak up — as in the case of BRE co-op in North Carolina’s High Country — demand will grow for on-bill financing and other energy efficiency programs.

Visit Appalachian Voices’ Energy Action Center to learn more, and take action now!

Video illustrates need for energy efficiency in the High Country

Friday, June 19th, 2015 - posted by eliza

In the mountainous northwestern corner of North Carolina, people pay higher percentages of their income on energy bills than almost every other part of Appalachia and the country. The especially harsh winters in this high-elevation region and widespread, outdated and energy-inefficient housing factor heavily into this problem.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia team held the High Country Home Energy Makeover contest this past winter to raise awareness about the issue and help three families in need. Their stories are representative of the more than 70 applications and inquiries we received about the contest. Our team is promoting affordable and accessible improvements to energy efficiency as a solution and advocating for our local rural electric cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp., to develop a program that will offer these improvements to its members.

This video takes you to the homes of the three winners and provides a glimpse of their experience living with high energy bills and struggling to heat their homes in the winter. See for yourself what the face of energy efficiency looks like, and how it can make you smile with lower bills and a more comfortable home!

If you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric, sign on to our letter of support asking for an on-bill financing program, which would help members cover the cost of home energy improvements.

Pope’s message on climate brings hope for change

Thursday, June 18th, 2015 - posted by cat

Encyclical-PF-10As news of Pope Francis’ pronouncement of our collective moral obligation to act on climate change whipped around the world, the planet just might have yawed and shook for a split second. The leader of more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide is a spiritual guide for many more, and his encyclical on ecology — the Vatican’s first — was anticipated to be a game-changer in the ongoing struggle to shed the world’s economies of fossil fuels and abate global warming.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but in the meantime, leaders from all corners of the globe and all walks of life hopped on the papal bandwagon to sound their own calls-to-action, including decisive action at the upcoming international climate summit in Paris. Below is a sampling of some of these comments, and a few excerpts from the “Laudato Si’” Encyclical. (What’s an encyclical? This article has a good summary of these papal documents.)

Quotes and excerpts are drawn from The Tree: Content for Climate and Energy Communicators website.)

  • “We are part of Nature. We don’t have two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather a single complex socio-environmental crisis. This is the frame within which we need to put some of the themes in the Encyclical” – Cardinal Peter Turkson
  • “The Church should now introduce the sin against the environment, the ecological sin. It is a sin not only against God but also against our neighbour and also, and this is very serious, against future generations” – Metropolitan of Pergamo, John Zizioulas
  • “As responsible citizens of the world – sisters and brothers of one family, the human family, God’s family – we have a duty to persuade our leaders to lead us in a new direction: to help us abandon our collective addiction to fossil fuels.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
  • “Business is a human enterprise and therefore must be by people for the people, whereas with business as usual not many of us will be around to enjoy the benefits” – Dr. Carolyn Woo, President & CEO of Catholic Relief Services
  • “The ones politicising the matter are those like Cruz who coddle their fossil fuel funders by denying the science of climate change and smearing those who attempt to point out the very real and damaging impacts climate change is already having. It is shameful and history will judge it as such.” – Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, Michael Mann
  • “Climate science is a tool for making decisions, not a political football. I wish journalists and citizens would ask politicians how they are using climate science to do their jobs — including protecting us from changes in some types of extreme weather — not for their personal opinions about scientific evidence.” – The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Aaron Huertas
  • “Today, it’s clearer than ever that the end of the fossil fuel era is upon us — and so too, we hope, the end of the era of rising poverty and inequality. The Pope’s call only hastens our transition to a clean energy future, adding even more momentum to the fast-growing movement to divest from fossil fuels.” – 350.org Executive Director, May Boeve

Some gems from “Laudato Si’”

  • Page 4 Section 8 – Protecting nature, quoting Patriarch Bartholomew

    “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”.

  • Page 28 Section 67 The Church has made mistakes, but that’s no reason not to do the right thing

    Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15).

  • Page 49 Section 114 Directing technology does not mean a return to the stone age

    All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

  • Page 70 Section 165 Shifting away from fossil fuels

    We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.

  • Page 82 Section 198 Politicians need to look beyond themselves

    While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable. Here too, we see how true it is that “unity is greater than conflict.”

Appalachian Regional Commission receives citizen input

Thursday, June 18th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Michael Shrader

The geographic area covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The geographic area covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

On June 4, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) held one of its five 2016-2020 Strategic Plan Listening Sessions in Morehead, Ky., to gather ideas from Appalachian citizens that will inform the commission’s plan for improving economic opportunities in communities across the region.

The Morehead Conference Center was full of forward-thinking minds from Kentucky and surrounding states who explained opportunities and barriers they see in their own communities. Many common themes emerged related to tourism, and adventure tourism in particular. Some attendants cited the need to cultivate and support family farms to create a local and sustainable Appalachian food system. Others spotlighted the opportunity for renewable energy generation in their communities.

The Obama administration’s POWER+ plan was mentioned several times as an opportunity that must be capitalized on. POWER+ invests in Appalachian workers and jobs through unique programs, many of which bear semblance to those discussed in Morehead. Appalachian Voices’ economic diversification campaign is currently building support for this proposal in Southwest Virginia.

Some attendees had a difficult time differentiating between opportunities and barriers to progress in their communities. Where some saw a vast, employable and idle workforce, others saw a lack of educational opportunities and substance abuse posing serious barriers to workforce development. Concrete barriers to development include a lack of local infrastructure such as highways, water systems and, especially, broadband Internet connectivity.

The massive amount of land owned by absentee corporations and extractive industries presents a unique challenge to regional development throughout most of central Appalachia and was mentioned several times throughout the session. Many residents cited less concrete barriers to progress such as a lack of hope and progressive leadership, and the enduring negative stereotypes associated with the region. Finally, there were many who stressed the need for the restoration of the landscape after mining and the resources to create jobs to do so.

Attendees outlined what they saw as ARC’s role in taking advantage of the opportunities and breaking down the barriers for development in their communities. The resounding consensus was a need to access capital and workforce development resources. In addition, attendees felt that ARC needed to work harder to make sure that groups in Appalachia could gain easier access to resources outside of ARC. Some felt that we needed to find ways to craft new language to talk about our problems and solutions. Others cited the need to address to vast health and wellness issues in the region.

Ultimately, many agreed that ARC, as a federal-state partnership, needs to broker change in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Appalachia. One attendee remarked that ARC must facilitate the conversation to look beyond Appalachia to other struggling regions across the nation to solve systemic problems and implement a new ‘true cost’ economic model.

The listening session brought a wide range of individuals and regional stakeholders together to share their unique perspectives. But some still felt that a representative range of people had not been able to participate. In fact, with the all-day session held on a Wednesday, many in attendance argued that it was impossible for the majority of working people to provide input, and stressed need for better stakeholder involvement and opportunities for public involvement.

Score one for the Clean Power Plan

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015 - posted by cat
Opponents of the EPA's Clean Power Plan were rebuked by a panel of judges for trying to preempt a rule that has yet to be finalized.

Opponents of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan were rebuked by a panel of judges for trying to preempt a rule that has yet to be finalized.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today rebuked the first legal challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to cut global-warming pollution from the nation’s power plants, filed by the coal industry and a dozen states last year.

Any state regulators in central Appalachian or other coal-friendly states who were holding their breath, stalling on developing plans to cut carbon pollution from power plants in the hopes of a court victory, should take a deep breath and get back to work.

In a straightforward ruling, a panel of judges agreed that the states and the industry groups had no legal grounds to challenge EPA’s “Clean Power Plan,” which was proposed last year and is expected to be finalized in August.

“Petitioners are champing at the bit to challenge EPA’s anticipated rule restricting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. But EPA has not yet issued a final rule. It has issued only a proposed rule. Petitioners nonetheless ask the Court to jump into the fray now. They want us to do something that they candidly acknowledge we have never done before: review the legality of a proposed rule.”

West Virginia led the pack in last year’s legal challenge of the EPA proposal. As state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey pretty much acknowledged in a statement today, it was a spaghetti strategy — throw it at the wall and see if it sticks:

“When we filed this case last summer, we knew there would be procedural challenges, but given the clearly illegal nature of the rule and the real harm occurring in West Virginia and throughout the country, we believed it was necessary to take all available action to stop this rule as soon as possible.”

One problem is that West Virginia, and the other plaintiff states, have essentially squandered the hard-earned money of their tax-paying citizens.

But a far greater issue is that some state regulators, who are responsible for developing the “State Implementation Plans” specifying how they’ll meet the EPA goals, have been holding out, hoping for a court ruling that would absolve them of this important task.

It’s time to quit dallying. The bottom line is, climate change is here, now, and existing fossil-fuel power plants account for 40 percent of America’s carbon footprint. We must significantly cut carbon pollution, and the most affordable, equitable and sensible way to do that is building up our clean energy sector.

Another challenge facing coal: Cleaning up

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015 - posted by brian
As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about post-mine reclamation liabilities to state officials.

As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about companies’ ability to pay for post-mine reclamation.

After bankruptcies, legal fees, fines, plummeting share prices and years without a profit in sight, another aspect of the financial perils U.S. coal companies face is coming into full view.

Recently, regulators worried about the ability of coal companies to pay for post-mine reclamation have begun scrutinizing a practice known as “self-bonding,” which allows a company to insure the cost of restoring the land after mining without putting up collateral, provided it meets certain financial criteria.

Reuters reported last week that Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, is under the microscope and may be violating federal bonding regulations under the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

Peabody, which reported a $787 million loss in 2014, had roughly $1.38 billion in clean-up liabilities insured by self-bonding at the end of March, according to the report. In fact, as its finances deteriorate, analysts say Peabody is warping the language of the law and pointing to the relative strength of its subsidiaries’ balance sheets to continue meeting self-bonding requirements.

Peabody is not alone. Arch Coal, which Reuters found has also failed the financial test to meet self-bonding requirements, is restructuring its multibillion-dollar debt. The company ended 2014 with $418 million in cleanup liabilities and hasn’t turned a profit since 2011.

On May 29, Alpha Natural Resources received word from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that it is no longer eligible to self-bond in the state. The company now has less than 90 days to put up $411 million in anticipated mine cleanup costs. The nation’s second-largest producer by sales, Alpha told investors earlier this year that it had $640.5 million in reclamation liabilities at its mines in Appalachia and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Watching as even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal bonding program are voicing urgent concerns to state officials.

In April, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement sent a letter to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection urging that the state conduct a fuller analysis of future risks — not just rely on historic data — to calculate reclamation costs.

“Given the precarious financial situation” of companies operating in West Virginia, the letter states, regulators should closely examine the risk of failure for sites with markedly more expensive liabilities such as pollution treatment facilities.

From where we’re standing, it’s tough to see how the situation could improve. Taken together, the country’s four largest coal companies — Peabody, Alpha, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy — have about $2.7 billion in anticipated reclamation costs covered by self bonding. Bloomberg News reported in March that nearly three quarters of Central Appalachian coal is mined at a loss.

As the problem grows, regulators and advocates for reform face their own predicament. Stricter self-bonding standards and enforcement push cash-strapped companies closer to bankruptcy. But inaction could leave taxpayers to pick up the bill if companies with unreclaimed mines eventually crumble.

Learn how mountaintop removal puts Appalachian communities at risk. Read the latest issue of
The Appalachian Voice.

A story found “In the Hills and Hollows”

Friday, June 5th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Filmmaker Keely Kernan, who wrote this piece, is currently producing In the Hills and Hollows, a documentary that follows the lives of several West Virginia residents living in the middle of the natural gas boom. The film also juxtaposes the boom and bust coal industry that has dominated the landscape of West Virginia for over a century with the current natural gas boom. Visit hillshollowsdoc.com to learn more about the project. Read the latest issue of The Appalachian Voice, which features stories about our fractured relationship with natural gas.

In the Hills and Hollows is an upcoming documentary film by Keely Kernan about the natural gas industry and its impacts on West Virginia communities.

In the Hills and Hollows is an upcoming documentary film by Keely Kernan about the natural gas industry and its impacts on West Virginia communities.

It was on the banks of the Ohio River that I was reunited with former residents of Tyler County, W.Va., Annie and John Seay. They were staying in an RV park that had become home to more than a dozen transient oil and gas workers.

I first met Annie and John at their home in Lima, W.Va., that was situated up a hollow surrounded by the vast rolling mountains that encapsulate West Virginia. They moved here from California with the hope of living off the land and retiring in the quiet countryside. After spending years investing in their property and building their dream home they found themselves doing the unimaginable — packing up and leaving West Virginia. Their property had been surrounded by dozens of gas wells and the smell of gas lingered in their hollow. There was no end in sight to the natural gas development that was transforming the rural landscape into an industrial zone.

“There is no respect for rural areas and rural areas are the ones getting attacked,” says Annie. After years coping with all the development, the traffic, and the insecurity of the long term consequences associated with living next to dozens of gas wells they decided it was time to leave. They left their home in August 2014 and moved into an RV. What they hadn’t sold at auction was packed up and placed in a storage facility until the time they found their new home.

As I walked towards their RV a large barge of coal slowly drifted down the Ohio River. It had been a few months since the last time I saw Annie and John. The weight of what had just happened and the unknown destination ahead of them was still heavy on their minds. However, their hope remained clear: find a new home, ideally somewhere this could never happen again.

In recent years, West Virginia has had some of the highest rates of depopulation in the country. Many reasons have added to this such as the lack of employment opportunities and the mechanization and decline of the coal industry. After the Elk River chemical spill last January, dozens of for “For Sale” signs started popping up around Charleston. And now the natural gas boom has hastened the population drain.

On my journey throughout the state I have met dozens of residents facing the same reality as Annie and John. These residents’ stories bring to the surface larger issues that need to be addressed in our country today — mineral rights versus individual surface rights, eminent domain versus individual and community rights. Overall, these stories provoke the question — what do property rights really mean?

Lewis County, W.Va., resident Tom Bond. Photo by Keely Kernan.

Lewis County, W.Va., resident Tom Bond. Photo by Keely Kernan.

As Lewis County resident Tom Bond states, “I would be forced to contribute the value of my property to a private enterprise. It is basically unconstitutional.” Bond is an 83-year-old cattle farmer from Lewis County and, like many residents of West Virginia, he does not own the minerals under the surface of his property.

Citizens across the nation are facing these challenges as natural gas development moves into their communities. What makes West Virginia unique is that in many ways this is history repeating itself. We have seen the legacy of the boom and bust coal industry, the poisoning of our waterways and the endless boarded up houses and empty store fronts that line the streets of towns that were once prosperous. In the southern part of the state the counties that produced the most coal are some of the poorest in the United States. We have seen wealth and resources leave and know what it is like to be left behind.

As I sat on the banks of the Ohio River and watched more coal barges flowing past I thought about the direction we are heading in yet again as a state. I have always believed in storytelling, particularly visual storytelling. I think it has the potential to connect us to people and places we might not otherwise know or understand. I hope that by sharing these stories I can help promote an important conversation about the type of future we want to share.

Watch the trailer for In the Hills and Hollows and learn more about the project here.