Archive for the ‘2017 — (Feb/March)’ Category

Environmental Protections Targeted

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Molly Moore

The Trump administration and 115th Congress quickly began rolling back pro-environment policies. By press time Feb. 2, two weeks into the Trump presidency, executive orders and actions in Congress were already changing the ground rules for environmental protections.

Trump signed 19 presidential directives in his first 10 days, according to USA Today, including an order that requires two regulations be repealed for every new regulation an agency issues.

President Trump also issued orders to revive the Keystone XL Pipeline, fast-track approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and expedite environmental review and approval for high-priority infrastructure projects. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is ranked No. 20 on Trump’s list.

In an interview with the Guardian, EPA transition leader and climate change denier Myron Ebell described the president’s plans to review or withdraw climate change education material and reconsider automobile fuel efficiency standards.

He also referenced the president’s campaign statement to abolish or “leave a little bit” of the environmental agency. “It is a goal he has and sometimes it takes a long time to achieve goals,” Ebell told the Guardian. “You can’t abolish the EPA by waving a magic wand.”

Many of Trump’s cabinet nominees were criticized by conservation organizations — perhaps none more than Scott Pruitt, who was nominated to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, opposing federal ozone and mercury limits among other programs. During his confirmation hearing, he did not say whether he would recuse himself from involvement in those cases and he voiced doubts about the scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change. William K. Reilly, a Republican who once headed the EPA, said Pruitt “cannot effectively lead the agency.”

Other cabinet nominees skeptical of climate science include Rick Perry, Trump’s pick for energy secretary, and Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general. Ryan Zinke, nominated to lead the Dept. of the Interior, acknowledged that climate change is real but hedged on the role that humans play and expressed favor for continued fossil fuel development on public lands.

Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor with ties to Appalachia, was nominated for secretary of commerce. He was president of International Coal Group during the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 workers, and during the time that roughly 14,000 Clean Water Act violations occurred at the company.

At press time, the full Senate had not voted on confirmation for these men, but Rex Tillerson, who served as CEO of Exxon-Mobil until his nomination, was confirmed as secretary of state.

In response to the administration’s actions, anonymous former and current employees at numerous federal agencies such as national parks, NASA and the EPA created alternative Twitter accounts, not funded by taxpayer dollars, to share environmental news.

Public resistance against a move to sell federal lands also saw some success. In January, House Republicans enacted a rule change that encourages transferring federal land to states. But a House bill that would have sold 3.3 million acres of public lands was withdrawn on Feb. 1 after widespread opposition from hunters, anglers and the conservation community.

The Energy Burden

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

Inefficient housing and financial difficulties can lead to insurmountable energy bills for rural residents

By Lou Murrey

Left, Gerlene Wilmoth surveys the damage to the foundation of their home in Tazewell, Tenn. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Gerlene Wilmoth surveys the damage to the foundation of their home in Tazewell, Tenn. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Gerlene and Ronald Wilmoth of Tazewell, Tenn., had always paid their electric bill on time.

That is, until August of 2015 when Ronald suffered a stroke at the age of 55 that left him unable to use much of the right side of his body and unable to return to his job as a truck driver. Gerlene had to quit her job cleaning homes to take care of her husband. With both of them unable to work, the couple’s monthly income was reduced to just $400 a month to cover all of their expenses.

Their home is drafty and in desperate need of repairs to the roof and foundation, which has led to high electric bills and uncomfortable living conditions. It turns out that $400 a month doesn’t stretch far for residents trying to pay for everyday living expenses on top of medical bills and high utility bills.

Residents in East Tennessee, like in many places across Appalachia, spend a significant portion of their income on energy bills. When federal funding for utility payment assistance and weatherization can’t meet the need, it falls on a small number of local service agencies and churches to fill the gap. Many of these service agencies and churches already struggle to help everyone in their communities who needs it, but with threats to federal funding, they may face an even greater demand. Relief could take the form of energy efficiency programs through the Tennessee Valley Authority and local power companies.

Available Resources

For the first few months following Ronald’s stroke, he and Gerlene received aid from the few service agencies who provide utility bill payment assistance around Claiborne County. First Baptist Church of New Tazewell was able to pay one month. Manna House, a Christian charity that offers one-time bill relief, was able to pay $25 the next, and the Claiborne County Office on Aging was then able to pay for three months’ worth of bills. The Wilmoths also received the maximum available $450 from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program known as LIHEAP, but that only covered two months’ worth of electric bills.

Then came July of 2016, when temperatures in Claiborne County consistently hovered in the low nineties. The heat was relentless, and it got especially bad for Gerlene and Ronald when the heat pump responsible for their air conditioning broke down and temperatures in their home reached 95 degrees, sending Ronald to the hospital for heat exhaustion.

As if the stress of Ronald’s hospitalization wasn’t enough, right as they reached the last little bit of their LIHEAP money, July’s electric bill arrived. Gerlene felt like she’d been socked in the gut. It was the highest one yet, at $225, and not knowing where she was going to turn for help, she started to feel a little panicky. She began making phone calls to just about everyone who had helped her before in the hope that they might be able to help again. This time she had no luck.

 Rust stains indicate  water damage on the side of the Wilmoths’ home. Photo by Lou Murrey

Rust stains indicate water damage on the side of the Wilmoths’ home. Photo by Lou Murrey

“I was totally freaking out,” says Gerlene. “I called so many people, and they wouldn’t have the resources to be able to help, so they would refer me to someone else, and they wouldn’t have the resources either.”

Having seemingly exhausted all of her resources, it felt like there was nowhere to turn for Gerlene. She remembers the terrifying feeling of helplessness.

“I was almost in disbelief,” she says, recalling her reaction at the time. “Like, how are we gonna pay it? They are gonna cut it off. With him being sick in July is when he had the heat exhaustion, and with that and the power bill being so high, how can we pay this? They are going to turn our power off, and we are going to smother in here.”

High Bills, High Need

Of course, churches and service agencies intend to help as many people as possible. But, according to Terry Ramsey at the Claiborne County East Tennessee Human Resource Agency office, they are struggling to keep up with the demand. ETHRA is a regional agency that serves 12 counties, and Ramsey says, “we try to help as many people we can. We go above and beyond.”

The U.S. Department of Energy defines energy burden as the “ratio of energy expenditures to household income.” According to a 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s study “Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities: How Energy Efficiency Can Improve Low Income and Underserved Communities,” the energy burden for low-income households is nearly three times higher than that of higher income households.

According to economist Roger Colton, an affordable energy burden for any household in the United States should not exceed 6 percent of a household’s gross income. Colton concluded in his 2015 study of the Home Energy Affordability Gap that low-income families were paying far more than that, depending on where they were in the country.

In East Tennessee, households earning 50 percent below the federal poverty line spend around 30 percent of their income on utilities, according to data from Colton’s firm. Gerlene and Ronald’s energy burden was around 50 percent of their household income.

The ACEEE study found that high energy burdens are primarily caused by inefficiencies in the home such as lack of insulation, leaky roofs, inefficient appliances and improper air sealing. But this is exacerbated by a person’s economic situation, high fixed utility rates and insufficient or inaccessible weatherization and bill assistance programs.

Lack of home weatherization is definitely a major factor in causing the Wilmoths’ high energy burden. “Where we don’t have the insulation and weatherization it’s too hot in the summer months and too cold in the winter months,” Gerlene says.

“My feet stay cold more than anything where the air comes up through the floor,” she says, reasoning that there can’t be much insulation under the house. In their bedroom there is a grapefruit-sized hole in the floor. She knows there are multiple roof leaks around their home because when it rains, water runs down the walls. Pointing to the kitchen, Gerlene continues, “when it rains, water blows in from the vent above the stove, and water comes in behind the stove.”

The Wilmoths have replaced all the their incandescent lightbulbs with more efficient compact fluorescents, but the major air leaks in the couple’s home resulting from improper sealing around doors and windows, a leaky roof and poor insulation are likely the greatest contributors to their high electric bill.

Where the Wilmoths live, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program is provided by ETHRA. Gerlene and Ronald are on the waiting list for ETHRA’s Weatherization Assistance Program, but the waiting list for Claiborne County alone is around 280 homes. As of November 2016, 2,709 families were on the waiting list for all 12 counties that ETHRA serves.

Steve Bandy, operations director of housing and energy services at ETHRA, reports that despite the long waiting list, the agency only has funding to complete 41 homes in the 2016-2017 budget year. At that rate it would take approximately 66 years to weatherize all the homes — if no new homes were added to the list.

Finding Relief

Part of the reason for the low number of homes being weatherized in East Tennessee is not enough funding.

“More funding would be great, if it was available, you’d be able to help more families,” says Lisa Condrey, ETHRA’s finance director of housing and energy services. “Because 41 families this year is not a whole lot. We serve 12 counties, so in some counties we are only able to serve two or three families.”

The funding ship may have sailed, though. Since 1976, funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program has been provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and has helped over 7 million families in the United States reduce their energy burden through energy efficiency upgrades to their home. On Jan. 19, the political news website The Hill reported that a blueprint of the Trump Administration’s proposed 2017-2018 budget included massive cuts to a number of government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy. With the new administration threatening to gut the Department of Energy, the future of the Weatherization Assistance Program is uncertain.

Weatherization improvements such as sealing leaky air ducts, adding insulation and replacing inefficient heating and cooling systems can provide a long-term fix for a high energy burden since they take care of the home inefficiencies that cause high utility bills in the first place.

For people like Gerlene who need help immediately, there is LIHEAP. Funding for LIHEAP comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in Tennessee it is administered by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency through human resource agencies like ETHRA.

When Ronald Wilmoth had his heat exhaustion episode, his cat wouldn’t leave his side until the ambulance arrived.  Photo by Lou Murrey

When Ronald Wilmoth had his heat exhaustion episode, his cat wouldn’t leave his side until the ambulance arrived. Photo by Lou Murrey

LIHEAP is the nation’s largest source of federal funding for utility bill assistance, and it is available to low-income households once in a 12-month period. Kathy Hicks, LIHEAP coordinator for ETHRA, says they receive around 5,500 applications each year from residents in the 12 counties they serve and are able to provide assistance to all of those clients.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that only about 22 percent of people eligible for LIHEAP nationwide apply. Local nonprofit organizations, churches and service agencies are left to fill in the gap, meeting the demand the best they can with the limited resources they have.

In rural areas like Claiborne County, there are only so many places to turn for energy bill payment assistance. In addition, areas served by rural electric cooperatives generally have higher energy burdens due in part to aging homes, higher electricity rates and lower average incomes, according to Rory McIlmoil, energy savings program manager at Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.

This means a smaller number of agencies have a large gap to fill. Last year, First Baptist Church in New Tazewell, Tenn., received around 200 calls from people asking for bill assistance.

“We used to provide assistance once every six months but [the demand] was too much. It got to a point that people called every six months, and the church and the team had to come to a decision that we could only do every 12 months, and we only serve people living in Tazewell and New Tazewell,” explains Beverly, the administrative assistant at First Baptist Church, who asked that her last name not be used.

The Wilmoths sealed a door shut to keep air from escaping. Photo by Lou Murrey

The Wilmoths sealed a door shut to keep air from escaping. Photo by Lou Murrey

The demand for utility assistance wasn’t always so high. She explains that the church saw an uptick in demand a couple years ago when the local electric cooperative, Powell Valley Electric, ended their WeCare program, a donation-funded program that paid $50 toward the bill of members in need during the winter months. According to Powell Valley Electric, they ended the program when not enough people were donating to the fund.

Where do people like Gerlene go when they’ve exhausted all the resources available to them? Denise West, director of the Claiborne County Office on Aging, says if someone has already been to First Baptist Church and Manna House, then she sends them back to ETHRA to apply for LIHEAP again. She can also help provide assistance to people over the age of 60 through a client-needs grant from the United Way.

“If we have the resource we’ll help them, but what we can’t do is pay people’s bill month after month after month. You can’t keep doing that, there has to be some kind of change made somewhere,” West says. She worked first-hand with Gerlene to see if they could make that change and find her the help she needed. “When you see people in that shape, first of all you’re angry because it takes so long to get help, and secondly you’re more willing to help them because you know they’ve done everything they can to help themselves,” West says.

Home Improvements

Advocates in the region agree that there does have to be a change made somewhere. While these programs provide emergency assistance, they don’t address the fact that too many people are living in inefficient homes without the money, ability or programs to fix them.

There are programs in Tennessee aside from the Weatherization Assistance Program that can provide energy efficiency upgrades, but the majority of those are in cities. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the federally owned energy generator for most of Tennessee and parts of six other states, funded Extreme Energy Makeover programs in Knoxville, Cleveland and Oak Ridge through a 2011 Clean Air Act violation settlement. Though the funding for these programs will end in September 2017, the Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover program will have been able to weatherize 1,200 homes.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

In an August 2016 meeting between TVA staff and low-income stakeholders in Claiborne County, Gerlene and the other community members in attendance wondered why TVA couldn’t replicate the program in the more rural areas of its territory. TVA staff member Michael Scalf told community members at the meeting that while TVA “would love to see the Extreme Energy Makeover valley-wide,” there are already state programs, churches, and nonprofits already doing energy efficiency upgrades and TVA is more interested in how these entities can work better together to provide much needed services.

Increasingly, inclusive on-bill financing for energy efficiency upgrades is being adopted by rural electric cooperatives across the Southeast. An example of an inclusive model for on-bill financing is Pay As You Save, which is tied to the electric meter and would allow people living in rental and multi-family homes to receive energy efficiency upgrades and pay for them through low-interest monthly payments on their electric bill. The energy upgrades not only benefit people by reducing their energy burden and making their home more comfortable, they also lower costs for the utility.

Roanoke Electric Cooperative in Eastern North Carolina launched an on-bill finance program called Upgrade to $ave in early 2015. According to Roanoke, the first 175 participants received an average of more than $6,000 per home in efficiency improvements, including weatherization and new heating and cooling systems. Those homes are saving nearly $500 a year on their electric bills, even after accounting for repaying the utility for the initial investment. Unfortunately, Roanoke’s program is the only one available in the Southeast, outside of Kentucky.

Before the Wilmoths’ electricity could be cut off, they received Ronald’s first disability payment and were able to pay July’s $225 electric bill. Since he started getting disability the couple has not sought help for their electric bills, but they have not had any weatherization done on their home either. Their electric bill has not gone down — in December their bill was $263.

That is money Gerlene has better uses for. “I need tires for my car and can’t get ‘em because the utilities are too high,” she contends. The Wilmoths still find themselves having to decide between being comfortable in their home and having enough money for food and medical bills. “We usually try to keep the heat at 65 in the winter, but where he’s on the blood thinner he freezes to death so we have to turn it up,” she explains, referring to her husband.

While she is glad Ronald got his disability money, she is frustrated that their food assistance got reduced to just $15 a month as a result. In January, rains flooded the Wilmoths’ bathroom and bedroom, and they learned that Ronald will be needing heart surgery. Gerlene sighs, “You just can’t get ahead.”

Lou Murrey serves as the OSMRE/VISTA Tennessee Outreach Associate with Appalachian Voices. Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ energy efficiency work at

Extending the Growing Season

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

How Appalachian farmers and gardeners are raising crops through the winter

By Dave Walker

Finding fresh, local food during cold Appalachian winters can be a challenge. “Most folks in our region don’t grow at all in the winter,” says Christopher McKenzie of the nonprofit organization Grow Appalachia. “That limits what’s available and when. We know that families need and like to eat fresh produce year-around, and we want folks to be able to eat out of their garden all year long.”

Work-release inmates help Chris McKenzie build a high tunnel for the Russellville Urban Gardening Center in Russellville, Ky. McKenzie says they were a great group to work with. Photo courtesy of the Bowling Green Daily News

Work-release inmates help Chris McKenzie build a high tunnel for the Russellville Urban Gardening Center in Russellville, Ky. McKenzie says they were a great group to work with. Photo courtesy of the Bowling Green Daily News

Some farmers and backyard gardeners in the region are using season extension strategies to do just that.

Season extension expands growing opportunities by controlling the environment around a plant, allowing more favorable conditions for the plant to thrive. From high tunnels to low tunnels to heated greenhouses to straw bales and cold frames, gardeners and farmers are producing fresh vegetables in Appalachia even in the deepest snow.

Crops like carrots, beets, cabbage, kale and lettuce can be planted earlier in the spring or sustained over the winter. Summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers can also be started earlier and be better managed for disease prevention, water use and consistency.

For Grow Appalachia, based in Berea, Ky., four-season growing matters as the group works to end food insecurity in Appalachia. Founded in 2009, the nonprofit organization provides funding and technical assistance to 40 partner sites in more than 50 counties throughout Central Appalachia. In 2015, they helped 4,644 gardeners grow over 580,000 pounds of food.

“We work in this region for a reason,” says McKenzie. “A lot of the counties that we work in are record-setters, nationwide, for joblessness. The exit of the coal economy has made an impact on our region.”

By encouraging Appalachians to grow more of their own food, Grow Appalachia partner sites have been able to introduce market farming as an extra income source for families, teach new generations how to preserve their food, and connect fresh food with community centers, assisted living facilities and hunger relief agencies.

Lengthening the Life of Your Garden

Each season extension strategy is unique to the backyard garden or farm. But several simple methods can go a long way toward enjoying fresh, hyper-local greens in the middle of winter.

Hardy plants — including arugula, cabbage, mustard greens, kale, swiss chard, mâche, miner’s lettuce and turnip greens — can grow well throughout the region unaided or with some simple frost protection. Many of these are sown in the fall for winter eating, but some can be started in December for early spring harvests.

Use row covers to blanket plants and insulate them from the cold. They come as fabric rolls from garden supply companies, and can be cut for the gardener’s bed size and reused each year. By adding more layers, the gardener increases their insulation. Small metal hoops lift the row covers above garden beds and plants, much like a tiny high tunnel or greenhouse.

Straw bale cold frames can be constructed by placing straw bales in a rectangle. By adding a window frame on top, the gardener has made a mini-greenhouse. This simple and inexpensive strategy can be very useful when starting vegetables for the spring. To control temperatures, the gardener can ventilate the cold frame by propping open the window with a stick at different heights.

High Tunnels for Higher Yields

McKenzie’s work with Grow Appalachia focuses on the organization’s social enterprises — businesses that aim to improve communities, not just make a profit. By manufacturing and selling high tunnels alongside certified-organic fertilizers, Grow Appalachia is able to direct profits back into its gardening program.

High tunnels look like greenhouses, but are unheated, and are an increasing trend with gardeners and farmers. Some structures are small, just six feet wide by twelve feet long. Others are much larger, such as 30 feet by 96 feet, with peaked, gothic roofs that allow space for tractors.

These structures enable gardeners to harvest year-round and provide farmers with a market advantage. Over the last several years, Grow Appalachia has built 79 high tunnels for 40 different farms and families in Appalachia, many of whom also participate in Grow Appalachia’s gardening program.

“One of our farmers in Waco, Ky., grows spinach in his high tunnels,” says McKenzie. “He’s able to have fresh spinach in February when no one else has fresh greens. He once told me that he was making better money in February than the height of the summer growing season.”

Grow Appalachia’s initial high tunnel design was flexible in its size and did not require grading the land or pouring concrete. Known as a quonset-style high tunnel, it looks like a series of semi-circular hoops that are short and narrow, without a peaked roof. These smaller high tunnels work well on slopes or in compact growing spaces.

“Later, we worked with the University of Kentucky’s research farm to develop a gothic-style high tunnel that has a peaked roof,” says McKenzie. This allows the high tunnel to be larger and to perform better in harsh weather conditions.

Grow Appalachia works with farmers and gardeners to develop unique high tunnels for each client. The organization receives raw materials such as lumber, galvanized steel, hardware and plastic, and manufactures pre-built kits: galvanized steel tubes are bent, doors are fabricated and holes are drilled. The hoop houses are then delivered by Grow Appalachia, which can also assist with construction and follow-up technical assistance.

While high tunnels constructed with galvanized steel can last a long time, their plastic covers and wood support-sidings have a limited lifetime. Greenhouse-specific plastics are engineered with UV inhibitors, often guaranteed for four years. After that, the plastic begins to discolor and needs to be replaced.

Depending on scale and style, high tunnels vary in price. But for market farmers, support can be found through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which offers a cost-share program. Grow Appalachia’s high tunnel enterprise meets NRCS standards, and the organization can assist farmers through the cost-share process. The nonprofit also serves as a NRCS technical assistance provider in Southeast Kentucky, helping high tunnel farmers with growing plans, guidance on pests and weeds, and assistance designing irrigation systems.

Grow Appalachia Program Director David  Cooke stands inside a gothic-style high tunnel built for Greenhouse17, a domestic violence shelter outside of Lexington, Ky. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

Grow Appalachia Program Director David Cooke stands inside a gothic-style high tunnel built for Greenhouse17, a domestic violence shelter outside of Lexington, Ky. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

“Grow Appalachia has helped us do patchwork on our high tunnels by adding new plastic and building new sides,” says Christina Lane of GreenHouse17 in Lexington, Ky., an advocacy agency committed to ending intimate partner abuse in families and the community. Serving 17 Kentucky counties, seven of which are in Appalachia, GreenHouse17 grows flowers, fruits and vegetables in six high tunnels on its 40-acre farm.

Since 2012, GreenHouse17 has worked with the University of Kentucky and Grow Appalachia to develop its high tunnels. Participants in GreenHouse17’s farm-training program earn stipends and learn the basics of farming and running a small business. Produce is used for meals at the center and sent to the 75 members of the organization’s Community-Supported Agriculture flower program.

“High tunnels are super helpful,” says Jessica Ballard of GreenHouse17. “We’re able to grow winter root vegetables, cabbage and kale while also putting flower seeds in the ground earlier. Our flowers’ stem strength is better and our high-dollar flowers won’t break from the wind and rain.”

Severe weather, though, presents challenges. “Over the past years with interesting weather patterns, we’ve seen a lot of collapses due to snow because folks have sourced them as cheaply as possible or they’re getting a kit from outside the region which may not be built for the snow load,” McKenzie says. “Season extension is an investment, and if you invest in season extension it will pay off. High tunnels have the potential to be a game-changer for farmers, especially where weather can be a challenge.”

At High Rocks Educational Corporation in Pocohontas County, W.Va., youth help raise beds of lettuce.  Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

At High Rocks Educational Corporation in Pocohontas County, W.Va., youth help raise beds of lettuce. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

At the Laurel County African American Heritage Center in London, Ky., Wayne Riley works with local youth to grow food for community members, an assisted-living center and the county’s jail. Riley grows lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower in the winter and tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans in the summer. With plans for two more high tunnels, the Laurel County African American Heritage Center will soon have six through Grow Appalachia’s social enterprise.

Riley prefers smaller high tunnels because they allow him to better rotate crops and control disease within the garden.

“Trying to overlap growing each season in a high tunnel can be hard,” says McKenzie. “With smaller tunnels, you can have one for spring, one for summer, and one for a cover crop. This lends itself to a sustainable production plan.”

Beyond Season Extension

In addition to its high tunnel social enterprise, Grow Appalachia works with partner sites across the region. These community groups collaborate with backyard gardeners, farmers and community gardeners to help produce bountiful harvests. Through six core classes, home gardeners work with these partner sites to plan, plant and maintain their garden while also learning heart-healthy cooking, food preservation and season extension techniques. According to McKenzie, this work has increased the availability of local food in many communities.

“Between season extension and food preservation, folks are eating and selling things out of their garden or farm year-round,” he says.

At the Cowan Creek Community Center in Letcher County, Ky., canning classes sponsored by Grow Appalachia lead to a greater sense of community. “People from all over Letcher County come to learn how to can like their mom or grandma used to do. It brings people from different economic backgrounds and experiences together,” says McKenzie. “In doing so, they’ve formed this interesting community where preconceptions are dropped.”

In Hindman, Ky., the Hindman Settlement School is reviving its agrarian history by experimenting with low tunnels, which are comprised of small hoops over crop beds that are blanketed with row cover.

This winter, the 114-year-old resident settlement school is busy planning for the spring. In February, it will distribute onion sets and pea seeds to more than 50 family gardeners. Many of these gardeners choose to only have a summer garden, but in the last few years Jacob Mack-Boll and Ashton Huxtable of Hindman have seen more and more gardeners continue to grow well into the winter.

“Some participants have been growing their whole lives,” says Mack-Boll. “They might need help tilling, while others have never grown anything before. So it’s a fun connection to have, bridging the gap between a generation ago and today for the folks we work with and the Hindman Settlement School’s history.”

During February, Mack-Boll and Huxtable will work with their area extension office to help gardeners prepare for the season. They will provide soil testing, advice on soil amendments, and will encourage gardeners to keep good long-term records. “We will talk about cover crops and crop rotation to put nutrients back in the soil,” says Mack-Boll.

Their hope is that this work, as well as their promotion of season extension strategies, will lead to a more vibrant and longer-lasting local farmers’ market. “One struggle is that our farmers’ market is just two months long, July and August,” says Mack-Boll. “With more late and early-season crops, we hope that it can run a little longer.”

Expanding the growing season gives farmers, customers and backyard gardeners alike the opportunity to enjoy local food beyond the traditional summer months. That leads to a greater abundance of healthy, fresh options, and the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes from a flourishing winter harvest. u
Dave Walker is the program manager for Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program in northwestern North Carolina. He also is working with community stakeholders to establish a seed library and a local food policy council.

Winter Greens with Executive Director Tom Cormons

Tom Cormons’ son stands in the family’s four-season backyard garden. Photo by Tom Cormons

Tom Cormons’ son stands in the family’s four-season backyard garden. Photo by Tom Cormons

For Appalachian Voices’ Executive Director Tom Cormons, gardening and self-sufficiency has always been a passion. He grew up eating fresh, wholesome food and wanted to share the experience with his family when he moved to his current home in Charlottesville, Va.
“I read Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and learned what’s possible through that book,” says Cormons. “He’s up in Maine and grows a tremendous amount of food year-round. If he can do it in Maine, I can do it more modestly in Virginia. One thing that I learned from him is that certain vegetables and varieties are incredibly cold-tolerant.”

In Cormons’ 500-square-foot garden, two of his favorite home-grown cold-season greens are mâche and miner’s lettuce. Mâche, also known as corn salad, is a small leafy green with a nutty flavor. Miner’s lettuce leaves are even smaller. He plants them densely, harvesting them with scissors. Both are incredibly productive in Charlottesville’s 7a hardiness zone, regrowing after each harvest for several successions.

Other vegetables that he regularly grows and harvests throughout the winter are komatsuna, a mild, mustard-like brassica that is fast-growing and can survive the winter with some protection, as well as kale, arugula, and mustard or turnip greens. Cormons also plants lettuce in November or December, which will lead to a strong harvest in late February or early March and produce until July.

To sustain these crops, Cormons uses several layers of floating row cover resting on top of the plants. This may be one or four layers, depending upon the vegetable and the temperature. With heavy snows, he will sweep the snow from the row cover, as it’s resting on top of the plant. “I haven’t needed to use any other strategies,” Cormons says. “I’m always able to get all the salad greens that we can eat through the cold season, as well as a lot of cooking greens.”

“I grow anything my kids are fired up about trying. They are involved every step of the way, from ordering the seeds through the harvest. That’s one of the most wonderful things about it for me,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to eat greens picked a few minutes before you eat them, year-around.” Cormons also notes that growing greens in the winter is easier and less labor-intensive than summer since there are no weed, pest or water shortage concerns.

Several things to look out for are: one, get things in on time and two, keep an eye on them. “It doesn’t require a lot of energy or time for the luxury of fresh greens,” says Cormons.

Could Concrete Help Get Coal Ash Out of Neighborhoods?

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

By Elizabeth E. Payne

By its own estimate, Duke Energy is currently storing nearly 160 million tons of coal ash throughout North Carolina. Finding a way to properly recycle this ash could remove a heavy burden from the communities that live near it.

Coal ash — a byproduct of burning coal for electricity — contains numerous heavy metals that pose health risks to humans, including heart disease, lung disease and certain types of cancer.

Most of Duke Energy’s coal ash is now disposed of in unlined impoundment ponds near the utility’s 14 active and retired coal-fired power plants across North Carolina. In 2015, the state’s environmental agency identified nearly 200 wells near impoundment ponds that contained elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium, both known carcinogens.

Caroline Armijo speaks about cleaning up coal ash in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Caroline Rutledge Armijo.

Caroline Armijo speaks about cleaning up coal ash in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Caroline Rutledge Armijo.

In response to the disastrous 2014 Dan River spill that contaminated the river with nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash, the state passed the Coal Ash Management Act later that year to oversee the closure and cleanup of these ponds. Last year, an amendment to the law mandated that recycling be part of the closure strategies at three Duke Energy plants.

For Caroline Armijo, who is concerned about the coal ash near her hometown of Walnut Cove, N.C., these recycling projects open the door to thinking about the coal ash impoundments in a different way.

“We have serious issues going on in the world right now,” she says. “You’ve gotta stop thinking about today’s penny [and] really put some brainpower behind these problems. I feel like it can be solved.”

Reusing Coal Ash as Fill

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines beneficial use as “the recycling or reuse of coal ash in lieu of disposal.” Finding another purpose for the ash can keep it out of landfills and impoundment ponds.

In 2015, Duke Energy — one of the largest utilities in the country and by far the largest utility in North Carolina — recycled 63 percent of the coal ash it produced in all its plants nationwide, according to the utility’s figures. But it only recycled 38 percent of the ash it produced in North Carolina.

The company highlights only three recycling projects on its website, each of which repurposes the coal ash as structural fill. Ash was used as a base underneath parts of the Asheville Airport and is planned for use refilling the Brickhaven and Colon clay mines in Chatham and Lee counties.

For structural fill projects, the ash is placed between liners to limit contamination with the surrounding soil and water. But EPA regulations for coal ash used as structural fill are more lenient than for coal ash buried in a landfill. Citizen and environmental groups have asked N.C. Superior Court Judge Carl Fox to review whether the clay mines that would be filled with coal ash should be considered landfills instead of structural fill. As of press time in early February, his decision has not been announced.

Concrete Facts

Reusing coal ash as structural fill leaves the coal ash unchanged and in a loose form that is more likely to leach toxins when exposed to water.

Using coal ash to make concrete is one way to physically change the coal ash and encapsulate the toxic elements while creating a valuable material.

Concrete is typically made by mixing sand, rock and water with cement — a dry powder often made from burned limestone.

Coal ash stored at Duke Energy’s power plant in Asheville, N.C., was used as structural fill at the city’s airport. Photo © Copyright 2011 Roy Tennant,

Coal ash stored at Duke Energy’s power plant in Asheville, N.C., was used as structural fill at the city’s airport. Photo © Copyright 2011 Roy Tennant,

Because of its chemical properties, coal ash can be substituted for cement when making concrete. Encapsulating the coal ash into a solid state minimizes the risk of contaminants leaching into the surrounding soil, water and air. The resulting concrete is also generally used for non-residential infrastructure projects, which further reduces risks to human health.

“It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s the best solution we have available to remove the ash from communities and to find a beneficial use for it,” says Amy Adams, North Carolina program manager for Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper.

Ash from coal-fired power plants can be recycled at two stages. First, it can be used immediately after it has been produced from burning coal at a power plant. This is called production ash.

Coal ash can also be recycled from impoundment ponds or landfills. This ash is more difficult to reuse because it has been mixed with water and contains ash of different types and qualities. It also may have deteriorated over time.

In order to repurpose stored ash it must first be processed, which is what Duke’s facilities at the three new recycling locations would be responsible for.

According to Jimmy Knowles, the vice president of research and market development at The SEFA Group, a company that specializes in marketing coal ash, production ash can be used by the concrete market with less processing and at a lower cost, since only ash that meets industry standards is collected and sold.

Coal ash has been incorporated into concrete for more than 60 years, according to a paper presented at an industry conference in 2005. Coal ash is not required for making concrete, but according to Knowles, when it is added the resulting concrete is more stable, stronger and often less expensive to make than concrete made from limestone-based cement.

“When it’s used in the concrete, not only does it make the concrete better, but it ties up these trace elements, these ‘constituents of concern,’” he says.

“From our perspective, [production] ash is our product. It’s not a pollution,” Knowles says. “It goes back to the ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ concept. But that’s the way recycling is.”

Location, Location

The 2016 amendment to the Coal Ash Management Act requires Duke Energy to identify three of its North Carolina power plants where processing facilities can be built to prepare coal ash for use in concrete. Each year, each of these sites must provide 300,000 tons of ash that meet industry standards for use in concrete.

Two of the sites — Buck Steam Station in Salisbury, N.C., and H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro, N.C. — have already been announced. A third site must be announced by July 1, 2017.

“I just keep saying, ‘Oh my God, this is all that we have asked for.’ After all the years of litigation and controversy, they’re finally going to remove [the coal ash],” Deborah Graham, a community advocate near the Buck Steam Station, told the Charlotte Observer when the deal was announced in October.

Duke Energy has retired both the Buck and Lee power plants, and neither is producing new coal ash. Together these two sites store only 12.6 million tons of the nearly 160 million tons of coal ash in the state. Duke Energy plans to leave the vast majority of the state’s ash in unlined, drained impoundments covered with a liner, a technique known as cap-in-place.

According to Amy Adams, several of Duke’s power plants that continue to produce and store large volumes of ash should be considered for recycling facilities. For example, the Belews Creek Power Station in Stokes County, N.C., stores nearly 20 million tons of ash, and the Roxboro Plant in Person County stores 34.6 million tons of ash.

A coal ash recycling facility.  Courtesy of The SEFA Group.

A coal ash recycling facility. Courtesy of The SEFA Group.

According to a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute, these two sites generate much of the state’s new production ash and store much of the state’s pond ash on-site. Both the Belews Creek and Roxboro plants already provide production ash to the concrete market. But neither can currently recycle its stored ash.

Henry Batten, president of Concrete Supply Co. in Charlotte, N.C., purchases some of that ash and is a strong advocate for more coal ash recycling. According to Southeast Energy News, his company “consumes about 2.1 to 2.5 million tons of ash annually” in North and South Carolina — and wants to buy more.

Batten sees a market in recycled pond ash. “We would hope that every plant that ever gets capped would eventually allow us, or someone like us, to harvest that ash for reuse in concrete because it’s better – it’s a more sustainable option than leaving it in the impoundments,” he told Southeast Energy News.

The Greenhouse Gas Factor

Burning limestone to make cement creates a significant amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. In 2009, cement manufacturing “was the fourth-largest source of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But every ton of production ash — which already lost most of its carbon when the coal was burned for electricity — used in cement reduces the carbon footprint of the resulting concrete by approximately one ton.

Recycled pond ash has a slightly larger carbon footprint, since lingering carbon must be burned off before it can be used in cement. According to Knowles of The SEFA Group, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions gained from recycled pond ash versus traditional cement varies by the quality of the ash, but he estimates that a two-thirds ton reduction can be expected for every ton of recycled ash used.

He acknowledges that carbon dioxide is released when the carbon is removed from the coal ash, but he points to the overall reduction in emissions in the concrete industry when coal ash is used.

From Pond to Concrete

“The only large-scale commercial operation in the U.S. that is currently processing wet ash is the SEFA STAR process,” the Electric Power Research Institute study states. The SEFA Group’s plant in Georgetown, S.C., processes pond ash from the Santee Cooper Winyah Generating Station.

Recycling plants dry the ash to remove moisture, burn off any remaining carbon and process the ash to ensure that it meets industry standards.

According to Knowles, one of SEFA’s large recycling facilities could process up to 500,000 tons of pond ash per year, and even larger facilities could be built. After removing moisture and carbon, each facility could supply between 300,000 and 350,000 tons of ash per year to the concrete market.

Knowles doubts these recycling projects could provide enough financial incentive for utility companies to stop all cap-in-place closures. But “if you dig it up and move it, and put it back in a lined landfill, you haven’t gotten any value out of it,” he says.

Other Options

Reusing coal ash in concrete provides access to a pre-existing and large-scale market. But other technologies are also being developed.
Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar is a professor at North Carolina A&T University, where his research focuses on developing new composite materials that are lightweight and high strength.

Following the Dan River spill, his research took on new urgency. He and his colleagues developed a technique of mixing coal ash with other substances to create a plastic-like composite with many potential uses, including roof tiles, barrier walls or railroad ties.

The composite he has developed could also be formed into large blocks that would safely encase the coal ash for long-term storage.

At right, compounds made of coal ash. Courtesy of Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar, N.C. A&T University.

At right, compounds made of coal ash. Courtesy of Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar, N.C. A&T University.

“Coal ash is not a problematic waste material, it is a resource if we handle it properly,” Shivakumar says. “But it requires an investment.” His team is seeking funding to continue their research.

Local Support

For families impacted by the coal ash impoundment ponds, getting the ash cleaned up and ensuring access to clean water remain the highest priority.

Caroline Armijo, who grew up near the Belews Creek Power Station, and is fighting to get the coal ash in that community cleaned up, sees innovative recycling projects as a step in the right direction.

“We could easily be a leader in this, an international leader, in this issue. And I hope that we will be,” she says.

For more information about coal ash recycling in North Carolina, visit

State Politics Across the Region

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne and Molly Moore

While national political headlines might dominate newsstands and newsfeeds, there is also plenty of action happening in state legislatures across the region. Here’s an overview of some of the energy and environmental topics at hand.


Session is expected to run from Jan. 9 through late March or early April.

According to the Georgia Conservancy, an environmental organization, key issues in the 2017 state legislature will include efforts to establish more transparency and environmental protections for any future petroleum pipelines, as well as legislation to protect freshwater sources by enhancing buffer zones.

Conservationists also hope to see passage of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, which would establish a permanent source of funding for environmental efforts such as establishing buffer zones around military bases and protecting the gopher tortoise, the state’s official reptile.


Session runs from Jan. 3 to March 30

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin began the year by announcing state budget cuts. According to the Courier-Journal, the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s budget will fall 9.7 percent from 2016 to 2018, and that’s on top of a 16-percent cut from 2012 to 2016.

Meanwhile, Bluegrass State legislators have introduced a suite of anti-environmental bills. Among them, H.B. 37 would exempt unmined coal reserves from state and local property taxation — these taxes support the Kentucky Heritage Land and Conservation Fund.

Other bills would make it more difficult for citizens to challenge environmentally harmful land uses, remove the requirement that any nuclear power facilities have a permanent waste disposal plan and make it more difficult for sewer districts to fund green infrastructure. H.B. 165 would restore a coal incentive tax credit that sunsetted for most facilities in 2009.

But there are also several bills that could benefit the state’s natural resources. H.B. 35 would establish public benefit corporations, where the business is accountable not just to shareholders but also to fulfilling a public-interest mission. And H.B. 61 would enhance the share of coal and mineral severance taxes that go to local governments.

The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition is advocating for passage of the Energy Opportunity Act, which would lead to increased renewable energy and energy efficiency in the commonwealth.


Session runs from Jan. 11 to April 10

Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has outlined a 2017 budget that offers $65 million in environmental investments including workforce training for green jobs, incentives for electric vehicles and efforts to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

Yet in 2016 the governor vetoed the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill that supporters say would have created jobs by requiring that Maryland derive 25 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, instead of the current target of 20 percent by 2022. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters intends to push for a legislative override of the veto in the 2017 session.

North Carolina

Session runs from Jan. 25 through July

At the beginning of 2017, North Carolina welcomed Roy Cooper, the state’s new Democratic governor, and welcomed back its Republican-controlled legislature.

The 2017 legislative session picked up where the December 2016 special session called by then-Governor Pat McCrory left off. In December, legislators limited the power of local election boards and limited the power of the incoming governor. Many of these initiatives are being challenged in court.

Cooper chose Michael Regan to head the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Regan served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under both the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations and recently worked with a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

Due to the restrictions on gubernatorial powers imposed by the special session, Regan’s appointment must now be confirmed by the state Senate.
If passed, two bills filed in the House could help smooth the way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. H.B. 3 would add a section to the state’s constitution expanding the situations in which government can apply eminent domain to take private property for public use.

H.B. 10 uses this revised definition to extend eminent domain to infrastructure projects including “facilities related to the distribution of natural gas, and pipelines or mains for the transportation of petroleum products, coal, natural gas, limestone or minerals.”


Session runs from Jan. 3 to late June or July as needed

In December 2016, Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, vetoed a bill passed by the state’s Republican legislature that would have frozen the state’s renewable energy standards. Gov. Kasich had signed off on the freeze in 2014.

The state’s dominant utilities, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, are also pushing the legislature to change to the way Ohio regulates utilities, in part to help keep AEP’s fleet of older coal-fired power plants profitable.


Session runs from Jan. 3 to June 30

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, is advocating for a severance tax on natural gas. It’s the third year he’s tried to institute such a tax — earlier efforts were defeated by the legislature’s Republican majority.

Several legislators introduced memos supporting use of the potential new tax revenue for various projects, including pension obligations and low-income utility bill assistance. The state faces a $3 billion budget shortfall, according to the Associated Press.

South Carolina

Session runs from Jan. 10 through June 1

State Sen. Campsen introduced a bill to reauthorize and fund the South Carolina Conservation Bank, a land protection institution that also facilitates public access to these areas. Another of Campsen’s proposals aims to restore certain wetlands.

In the House, Rep. Neal proposed an Environmental Bill of Rights asserting South Carolinians’ rights to clean air and water and allowing local governments to enact environmental protections that are stronger than state standards.

Another House bill, from Rep. Atwater, would allow all regulations to expire after five years unless they meet specific provisions, while a bill from Rep. Pitts would create an industrial hemp agriculture program.


Session runs from Jan. 10 through mid-April

One bill headed for the Senate would amend the tax code for oil and natural gas severance payments in order to provide more resources to impacted communities. If passed, funds could go towards infrastructure, which expands economic opportunities and decreases respiratory ailments caused by dusty roads.

Another Senate bill seeks to expand broadband internet service to underserved rural communities in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has also proposed a plan to invest $45 million in expanding broadband access over the next three years.

Environmental groups are seeking support for a bill that would expand how families and companies could finance energy upgrades, according to WMOT Radio.
The state’s environmental agency is also planning to privatize portions of Fall Creek Falls State Park.


Session runs from Jan. 11 through late February

Parallel bills introduced in the Virginia House and Senate would encourage pumped hydroelectric storage facilities powered by renewable energy in Southwest Virginia. In facilities of this sort, wind or solar energy would pump water from a reservoir at a lower elevation to one at a higher elevation. That water can then be used for hydroelectric power whenever there is need on the energy grid.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to veto H.B. 2198, which would extend until 2022 tax credits to the coal industry that were set to expire in 2017. S.B. 990 aims to reduce electricity usage in the retail sector.

H.B. 1678 would exempt as “trade secrets” any chemicals and ingredients submitted to the DMME — such as those used in fracking — from requests under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

In the Senate, three bills sponsored by Sen. Frank W. Wagner focus on renewable energy. One bill would create community solar pilot projects in Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power territories. Another bill sets parameters for small-scale generators at agricultural businesses that use renewable energy to sell any excess electricity. A third bill would allow wind and solar facilities up to 150 megawatts to benefit from an easier permitting process.

Read more about Virginia state legislation on the Front Porch Blog.

West Virginia

Session runs from Feb. 8 through April 8

West Virginia’s Democratic governor and coal-mine owner Jim Justice appointed Austin Caperton, another man with deep ties to the coal industry, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

On Jan. 27, Caperton fired Wendy Radcliff, the department’s environmental advocate. He also fired the department’s communications director.

“This is troublesome news,” Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Radcliff has been the direct line for citizen concerns to help make sure the agency is accountable to the public.”

When the state’s legislature convenes, the West Virginia Mineral Owners Coalition intends to lobby for legislation that would support landowners, such as protecting a landowner’s right to deny access to pipeline surveyors and upholding minimum royalty payments for minerals.

Maintaining water quality standards, promoting energy efficiency upgrades in commercial buildings, and advocating for disclosure of campaign financing are among the legislative priorities of the West Virginia Environmental Council.

A Sweet Maple Harvest

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

Maple syrup in Central and Southern Appalachia

By Dan Radmacher

When most people think of maple syrup production, they picture a bucket hanging off a tree in Vermont, New Hampshire or some other New England state. But modern tapping involves miles of plastic tubing, not buckets — and a surprising amount of it is taking place in Appalachia, far from the Northeastern region best known for maple syrup.


Bethany Boyer-Rechlin works on a maple syrup tap at the Dry Fork Maple Works in Randolph County, W.Va. Photo by Mike Rechlin

“The Appalachian Mountains are home to some large populations of sugar maples, especially in the higher elevations,” says Ryan Huish, assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. “Historically, there was much more tapping in the region. You can still see names of roads, cities and geographic areas here that reflect the cultural significance of sugaring — Sugar Run Road, Sugar Grove, Sugar Hill, and so on.”

Mike Rechlin, a member of the board of the West Virginia Maple Syrup Producers Association, says mapling is seeing a resurgence in Appalachia. “The number of taps is expanding dramatically,” he says. “There are lots of people looking to get into the game.”

Dry Fork Maple Works in Randolph County, W.Va., which Rechlin helps operate, has 18,000 taps. “Traditionally, we hung buckets to collect sap,” he says. “The sap would flow out of a hole into a bucket, then you’d boil it down, adding nothing until the sugars are concentrated.”

Modern operations run a bit differently. “When you’ve got 18,000 taps, that’s a lot of buckets,” Rechlin says with a laugh. Today, plastic tubing runs from tree to tree to bring the sap down to a collection tank. While it’s possible to turn sap into maple sugar with nothing more than a pan and a heat source to boil it, Rechlin says commercial operations need to increase energy efficiency, so most use reverse osmosis filtering that concentrates the sugar in sap — about 2 percent when it comes out of a maple tree — up to about 12 to 15 percent before they start boiling it to create syrup.

tree hugging

Ryan Huish enjoys the day with student researchers and a sugar maple in Bolar, Va. Photo by David Bruce.

“The reverse osmosis filtering removes water in advance to reduce energy consumption and save time,” Rechlin says. “The heat in the evaporation process also results in chemical conversions that result in that classic maple flavor and color.”

Those chemical conversions create a variety of compounds in the syrup — and researchers are studying them to determine whether they have any health benefits, Huish says. “Researchers are still finding new compounds in syrup, some of which show antimicrobial and anticancer properties,” he says. “Some may even be novel therapeutics to manage diabetes — compounds that help the body process sugars more slowly.”

Huish says sugar maples can be found from eastern Canada and down along the Appalachian Mountains as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee. “With more and more people recognizing the values of local roots and traditions — and the health benefits of maple syrup — there seems to be a resurgence of maple tapping beginning in the Appalachians, which is refreshing,” he says.

Neil Shinholt of S&S Maple Camp in Maryland isn’t part of any resurgence — he’s been making syrup for 58 years, since he was 10 years old. “My granpap had this farm in the ‘30s,” he says. “We raise beef and make syrup. These trees, I learn from them every year. When I was a boy, we only had a couple of trees tapped, all on buckets, and every day we had to gather sugar.”

Now the farm has about 9,000 trees tapped. Shinholt has seen a lot of seasons, and every one has been different. Weather is key. Sap flows best when temperatures are freezing during the nighttime and thawing during the day.

Different grades of maple syrup are displayed in a window. Photo by David Bruce.

Different grades of maple syrup are displayed in a window. Photo by David Bruce.

During the summer, sugar maples produce carbohydrates from the sun’s energy through a process known as photosynthesis. Those carbohydrates are stored as starch in the trees’ roots, creating an energy reserve dormant trees use to kick-start growth in the spring. When cycles of freezing and thawing occur in the early spring, it creates pressure within the tree that draws water and dissolved sugars up through the tree to the buds. That’s the sap that taps collect.

“If you put a tire gauge in a hole in a maple, it will actually read the air pressure,” says Rechlin. “The hole in the tree relieves that pressure and causes the sap to flow out. Sap flow 101: no freeze and thaw cycle, no tap flow.”

That puts a definite crimp in the business. “Last year, we had a different kind of winter,” Shinholt says. “It didn’t get cold until late in the year. Temperatures were getting so warm in the day, up to the 70s. That’s something you don’t want. The water was cloudy coming into the tank. It had already ruined the flavor of the syrup, so we quit. Northern people were having ideal weather. They had a great year.”

A lot of different factors go into creating a good sap harvest, Shinholt says. The best he can remember in recent years was 2014. “The weather was perfect,” he says. “We just had to keep buying barrels. It’s the temperature fluctuation that makes the sugar flow. The ideal temperature is 25 at night and 45 during the day. You want wet, sloppy ground, too. Trees won’t produce if the soil’s dry.”

The Maple Climate

With the harvest so dependent on weather, it’s natural to wonder about the impact of climate change, which has resulted in record-breaking temperatures the last three years in a row. Shinholt has seen some changes during his lifetime. “I’m not going to say that I see temperatures warming,” he says. “But I do see that there are more of the prolonged cold and warm spells. And maples don’t operate in that kind of weather. A prolonged warm spell is really bad. Once the tree goes dormant, each warm day after that sap moves up from the roots to the bud pocket and it will eat some of that sugar. You want it to stay cold until the spring when things are starting to come back to life.”

The impact of climate change on the industry worries Rechlin, a native of upstate New York who’s lived in West Virginia for the last six years. “That is the $64,000 question,” he says. “I haven’t been down here long enough to answer that question, but I’ve been down here long enough to know we need to ask it. We need to have more serious research on some of those climatic issues here to be comfortable expanding the industry. The harvest was terrible last year because of the weather. We went 15 days without a freeze/thaw cycle in what should have been prime sugaring season.”

Mike Puffenbarger owns Southernmost Maple in Bolar, Va. Photo by David Bruce.

Mike Puffenbarger owns Southernmost Maple in Bolar, Va. Photo by David Bruce.

Huish says such concern is understandable, and climate change could definitely have impacts on the sap harvest. “Maple tapping is very dependent on the climate,” he says. “The sap won’t flow if conditions aren’t just right.” But he doesn’t believe the Appalachian industry is in mortal danger, at least for now.

“I see maple syrup production continuing in the Southern Appalachians for a long time — maybe even centuries,” Huish says. “However, there could be some threats to the southern [tree] populations that could jeopardize successful tapping in the very long-term. There are some climate projection models that suggest sugar maple may not prefer the climate so much in our neck of the woods in the future.”

Climate change could impact the quality of the syrup, as well. “When plants get stressed out, their defense mechanisms kick in, and their chemistry changes,” Huish says. “It is still unclear exactly how and to what level this is influencing the syrup, but we are investigating this.”
Huish is part of the Acer Climate and Socio-Ecological Research Network, a team funded by the U.S. Geological Survey and Northeast Science Center, with scientists from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth College, University of Quebec and Montana State University. The ACERnet team is looking into potential strategies for sap harvesting and syrup production in a changing climate.

Meanwhile, the market for Appalachian syrup and other maple products is booming. “The market is a great, great market,” says Shinholt. “The market is diversifying. People use maple syrup for a lot more than just pancakes. Some folks are even taking the water from the tree, pasteurizing and bottling it. People are drinking that. It’s supposed to be good for you, there are so many great things in this water for the human body.”

maple pork BBQ

Maple pork barbecue is popular at the Highland County Maple Festival in Monterey, Va. Photo by David Bruce

Highland County, Va., is holding its 59th annual maple festival in mid-March. “That festival draws thousands of people every year,” says Huish. The town of Pickens, W.Va., will also host an annual maple syrup festival in March.

Huish believes southern Appalachian maples may have higher concentrations of antioxidants and other phenolic compounds — and some people say it has more flavor. “Many people we’ve spoken to from both the north and the south have mentioned the southern syrup tastes better,” says the researcher. “Of course, that’s just anecdotal, and ongoing research will need to confirm this. We are still eagerly collecting and analyzing data.”

Last year, demand outpaced supply in Appalachia, Rechlin says. “Demand is good and growing as more people learn that we actually make it here,” he says.

Using Art to Combat Environmental Destruction

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

Inside Looking Out

By Andrew Tarley

Monongalia Arts Center, the historic home for arts and culture in Morgantown, W.Va., is collaborating with local artist Betsy Jaeger to show the visible changes in the rural countryside caused by the fossil fuel industry in an exhibition titled “Inside Looking Out.”

The arts center provides a forum for activism through the arts. This time, the issue is one that affects residents throughout the county: fracking and strip mining.

Inside Looking Out: Southwest Windows (Betsy Jaeger)

Inside Looking Out: Southwest Windows (Betsy Jaeger)

Jaeger lives in rural Monongalia County, just west of Morgantown and outside of the commotion of the small city. She moved to Morgantown from Chicago in 1976 to earn a Master of the Arts from West Virginia University. While at WVU, she met her husband, a sculptor, and the two married and moved to a serene 12-acre plot of land in the countryside.

“Many of our neighbors, then, earned their living by raising cattle to send to the big feedlots. Our little community was beautiful, and we really enjoyed the quiet and night-time darkness to see the stars and planets,” Jaeger writes. “But inevitably, all things change, and our rural idyll was no exception.”

With the advent of modern mining equipment in the mid-2000s, surface coal mining in Monongalia County quickly grew in scale, and Jaeger perceived a seismic shift in her community. She refused to sell her rural home and mineral rights to a coal company, even though some of her neighbors had begun, one by one, to agree to sell their mineral rights. According to Jaeger, some also sold their entire properties.

Betsy Jaeger

Inside Looking Out: Southeast Windows (Betsy Jaeger)

“We watched what had been a charming farm community become an industrial wasteland in just two years,” she says. “There was not enough bond money to pay for adequate reclamation.”

In 2012, strip mining began directly in front of her home, adjacent to her property line. Jaeger tracked more than 200 blasts, which rattled the foundation of her home, and she monitored the water quality in her local stream, finding high levels of heavy metals near mining outfalls.

Fracking companies and their trucks also arrived to build drilling stations. “They caused much less damage to the physical landscape than the strip mines, but the air and water quality continued to degrade,” Jaeger says. Wastewater from the fracking sites caused a massive fish-kill on a creek north of her home.

Jaeger created “Inside Looking Out” to share the drastic changes that occurred. This exhibition recreates the views outside of her 12 windows, past and present, using mixed-media elements such as sculpture, photographs and paintings. She says she hopes that this exhibition will spark local discussion and energize the community.

Inside Looking Out: Power Line (Betsy Jaeger)

Inside Looking Out: Power Line (Betsy Jaeger)

“People in Morgantown need to be aware of what is happening to their air and water and landscape,” Jaeger says. “We need to be aware of what is going on outside of the city because it affects us all.”

The exhibition is free and will open with a public reception on Friday, March 3, 2017, at 6 p.m. Refreshments and snacks will be available. “Inside Looking Out” will be on display until April 1. Monongalia Arts Center is located at 107 High Street, Morgantown, W.Va. Inquiries should be directed to or 304-292-3325.

Andrew Tarley is the Media and Advertising Coordinator at Monongalia Arts Center and a former Appalachian Voices intern.

Congress Blocks Stream Protection Rule

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

On Feb. 1, the U.S. House of Representatives invoked a seldom-used procedure to strike down the Stream Protection Rule. The Senate followed suit the next day.

The rule, enacted by the U.S. Department of the Interior in the final days of the Obama administration, offered modest steps toward protecting streams from surface mining.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement worked on the rule since 2009. It required increased water monitoring and forest reclamation, among other provisions to update the 1983 stream buffer zone rule.

“I have watched the creek that flows past my grandmother’s home in Floyd County, Ky., become ruined by the strip mining above it. I used to catch crawdads in that creek, but now it smells and looks noxious,” said David Wasilko, of Kingston, Tenn., in comments submitted to the federal office that wrote the rule. “There is no life in the water and the terrible odor permeates the entire hollow. Citizens of the coalfields deserve the best possible Stream Protection Rule that the OSM can provide.”

The 1996 Congressional Review Act, the tool used against the Stream Protection Rule, allows Congress to block federal regulations within 60 congressional days of their passage and makes it difficult to write “substantially similar” rules in the future. It had only been successfully used by Congress once in the past.

“We have failed to protect the families in these communities, and passage of this bill will inflict another blow to their health and wellbeing. They deserve far better,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) told fellow members of the House.

As of press time in early February, members of Congress have challenged at least a dozen other rules using this law. Also at risk is the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule requiring oil and gas companies operating on federal and tribal lands to decrease the amount of natural gas that is vented each year into the atmosphere.

On Feb. 1, the House also struck down a regulation passed by the Obama administration that required oil, gas and mining companies to report payments from foreign governments, according to the Washington Post.

Read more about the ongoing fight for clean water on our Front Porch Blog.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline Environmental Review Underway

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Elizabeth E. Payne

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its draft environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on Dec. 30, 2016. This proposed $5 billion pipeline would carry fracked gas along a 600-mile route from well sites in West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.

The pipeline is proposed by energy giants Dominion Resources and Duke Energy, among others.

Current fracked gas infrastructure will meet electricity needs through 2030, according to an independent study by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. The study concluded that additional pipelines are not needed.

Environmental experts and advocacy groups, including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper, have challenged the federal review because it did not consider the need for the pipeline or its full environmental and economic impact.

The Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, a citizen advocacy group fighting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has reported that most of the proposed route in West Virginia passes through terrains prone to landslides. These risks have largely been ignored by FERC, according to the coalition.

Yet in Virginia, the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors voted on Jan. 5 to approve a compressor station in the county despite vocal opposition from area residents. The industrial station would be built along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in order to keep the gas moving inside the pipeline at sufficient pressure.

Many residents have voiced concern about the noise and health problems that may arise if the station is constructed. More than 150 citizens attended the board’s meeting in mid-December 2016, and the Jan. 5 meeting was also filled with opponents of the station.

“Shame on every one of you,” Annie Parr — a native of Buckingham, Va., is quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as saying to the Board of Supervisors after the vote.

The public comment period for the federal draft environmental impact study will be open until April 6, 2017. For information on public hearing dates and to take action, visit

Environmental Votetracker — Feb/March 2017

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by molly
Appalachian House and Senate votes on the Stream Protection Rule

Click to enlarge