At first glance, two recent news stories appear unrelated, but a closer look reveals they point in the same direction — the convergence of the tremendous economic opportunities of building a strong clean-energy sector in the U.S., and the needs of low-income, largely disenfranchised populations.
On February 20, when temperatures across the East and South sank well below freezing, customers served by two of the nation’s largest electric utilities — Duke Energy Carolinas and Dominion Virginia Power — set all-time highs for energy use. So did customers of a much smaller utility, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. in western North Carolina. Other utilities may have set records as well.
It also happened to be the same day that the NAACP passed a resolution entitled, “Promoting Equitable Access to Clean Energy Alternatives” calling for programs and policies that ensure affordable access to clean energy options for all, and job training and opportunities for lower-income African-Americans.
Connect the dots: increasing energy efficiency and other clean energy choices like rooftop solar can reduce overall demand on the grid, save money for families and companies, and create economic opportunity for communities that need it most.
High consumption = high cost
The utilities, in announcing the record-high energy use, neglected to note that their customers just might be getting record-high electric bills next month to pay for all those kilowatt hours. High bills can be especially burdensome on low-income families, which sometimes spend as much as 20 or 30 percent of household income on electricity.
Rather than building ever more fossil fuel generators to cover spikes in energy use (which arguably we’ll be seeing more of in winter and summer as climate change continues to wreak havoc on weather patterns), utilities ought to be investing a lot more in helping their customers weatherize and insulate their houses and apartments. Those who would benefit most are lower-income families, rural and urban, who can least afford the upfront costs to make energy-efficiency improvements, yet whose homes are in worse shape than most.
Moreover, studies show that implementing energy efficiency and other clean sources of energy, like solar and wind, creates jobs and business opportunities, and strengthens local economies.
Cleaner energy = more equitable energy
The flip side here, as the NAACP’s resolution notes, is that the cost of not transitioning to clean energy is disproportionately borne by communities of color and low-income communities in terms of the health impacts of mining, burning fossil fuels, dumping the toxic waste, and the impacts of climate change.
“The NAACP has a vested interest in improving the quality of lives of those most adversely impacted by high rates of energy consumption, while promoting safer, affordable, and equitable energy alternatives and supplier options. Our adopted policy is reflective of our historical civil rights legacy,” says Kathy Egland, chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors Environmental and Climate Justice Subcommittee.
Hitting record-high energy use is nothing to crow about. Although Duke and Dominion said that emergency conservation measures by their customers helped them get through the February 20 spike, they aren’t fully connecting the dots: deploying robust energy efficiency and clean energy programs will provide a more secure, affordable, and equitable energy system for its customers long into the future.]]>
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It’s official — Appalachian Voices is partnering with one of the premiere music and arts festivals in the country to spread some serious love for mountains!
This year, our organization was chosen by FloydFest 2015: Fire on the Mountain as the featured nonprofit. FloydFest is a 5-day music and arts festival held each year just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd, Va. This year’s festival features more than 100 musical acts of all genres playing on eight different stages, with a lineup that boasts of top acts such as Brandi Carlile, Emmylou Harris, Drive-By Truckers, Grace Potter, Leftover Salmon and Keller Williams, as well as up-and-comers including Annabelle’s Curse, American Aquarium, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks and Pitchblak Brass Band.
Festivalgoers have a chance to donate to Appalachian Voices when purchasing their tickets, and the festival organizers will match with a donation from their proceeds. We’re also planning all kinds of fun collaborations with FloydFest organizers to promote stewardship of the Appalachian mountains, including an “I Love Mountains” temporary tattoo parlor and a raffle to win a West Virginia rafting trip.
We’ll also be holding a contest to give away four tickets this spring, so stay tuned!
“We’re excited to be teaming up with Appalachian Voices” Erika Johnson, CFO of Across-the-Way Productions and co-founder of FloydFest, says. “The theme for this year’s FloydFest, “Fire on the Mountain,” is amongst other things, an homage to mountains as they should be — mountains alive with trees, animals, and the fire of music loving festival-goers … not the smoking rubble of mountaintop removal.”
FloydFest is more than just a music festival, and incorporates hands-on learning with a bent for family-friendly activities. Guided outdoor adventures, including hikes, mountain biking, a disc golf course and a geocache adventure. Workshops and panels cover everything from bee-keeping and primitive tool making to hula hooping and conservation discussions. And the Workshop Porch offers music lovers a chance to get up close and personal with some legends of mountain music culture.
If you’ve never been to FloydFest, you are in for a treat. Floydfest was voted “Best Outdoor Music Festival” by Blue Ridge Magazine, and the organizers go above and beyond to create a festive and joyous atmosphere. Lights festoon the trees, a “high roller” camping section accommodates folks who like a more all-inclusive experience, and the vendors are comprised of a juried selection of more than 70 jewelers, potters, clothiers, (mad) hatters, shoemakers, painters, photographers, candle makers and more. The food court includes delicious local and vegetarian fare, and the variety of music and other activities ensures you will have to work to be bored.
So come join us for this unique and merry festival nestled deep in the Blue Ridge, and help us spread some love for the mountains.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit our special FloydFest page.]]>
Duke Energy likes to use a tagline that goes something like “For more than 100 years we’ve been providing customers with reliable, affordable electricity at the flip of a switch.”
It’s boilerplate, but it works. So I doubt the company will amend that punchy bit of self-praise to include “and we were recently found criminally negligent for polluting North Carolina rivers with coal ash.”
Even so, a year after the Dan River spill, Duke seems to understand that coal ash pollution has its own chapter in the company’s corporate story. Now, Duke will pay for its crimes.
The bombshell news came in two pieces around the same time last Friday; the U.S. Department of Justice announced the charges and Duke announced it struck a deal with prosecutors. A few days before the big reveal, Duke told shareholders in an earnings report that it set aside $100 million to resolve the federal investigation that began after the Dan River spill.
The company faces nine misdemeanor charges for violating the federal Clean Water Act at multiple coal ash sites across the state. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Western, Middle and Eastern Districts of North Carolina each filed charges in their respective federal courts, related to violations that occurred at coal ash ponds owned by Duke in their respective districts.
According to DOJ, Duke was criminally negligent in discharging coal ash and coal ash wastewater from storage ponds its Dan River, Asheville, Lee, and Riverbend plants into North Carolina rivers. Violations related to equipment upkeep were found at the Cape Fear Steam Station, where Duke was cited by the state for illegally pumping 61 million gallons of toxic water from a coal ash pit into the Cape Fear River last year.
The DOJ’s press release makes clear that the filing of charges is not a finding of guilt, and most prominent news outlets left any indication that Duke is guilty of its coal ash crimes out of their coverage. We decided to use the word “guilty” in our press release largely because a proposed plea agreement including millions in fines had been reached.
Also, in a consent to transfer the plea and sentencing proceedings to the Eastern District court, an attorney for Duke wrote: “… the Defendants wish to plead guilty to the offenses charged.”
Of course, Duke steered clear from the words “guilty” or “plea” in its own announcement. But, as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman told the Charlotte Observer, “When anyone pays $100 million to resolve a grand jury investigation, that indicates something serious happened.”
There’s still a lot of specifics we don’t know about the agreement between prosecutors and Duke. Prosecutors say they won’t comment until after court proceedings where the agreement must be approved by a federal judge.
It’s important to note, though, that this is a plea bargain to resolve a criminal investigation, not a settlement to avoid a civil trial. The proposed agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation. The fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke’s shareholders will take the hit.
Importantly, the agreement would also put Duke on probation for five years, during which a court-appointed monitor would ensure compliance with provisions related to training, audits and reporting. According to Duke, the full agreement will be made public if it is accepted by the court.
“We are sorry for the Dan River spill, and remain grateful to our friends and neighbors for your support,” Duke CEO Lynn Good said in a statement. “We are committed to moving forward in a safe and responsible way.”
For a year Duke has been saying sorry to its customers and communities along the Dan River — basically demanding that it be held to a higher standard. So even though the company is no longer in crisis mode, it’s still watching its back as it tries to repair its reputation and move beyond the spill.
The problem of coal ash pollution in North Carolina is far from resolved. According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 1 billion gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Just yesterday, Duke was cited for contaminating groundwater at its Asheville Plant.
In addition to investigating Duke Energy, federal prosecutors subpoenaed current and former employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which used to regulate coal ash ponds. But none of the charges against Duke allege any improper, or illegal, dealings between the company and state regulators.
Without clarification from the U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of DENR is ongoing.
“While prosecutors aren’t legally obliged to explain charges they don’t file, in this case the public needs more substantial disclosures,” the Fayetteville Observer wrote in an editorial. “The Justice Department needs to let us know whether a cloud of suspicion remains over DENR.”
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Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.
Earlier this month, President Obama showed that Appalachian citizens are finally being heard. The White House announced a proposal for more than $1 billion in federal funding to help build economic resilience for parts of the region long-dominated by the declining coal industry. While congressional approval would be needed to make this a reality, the announcement shines a spotlight on what should be a real national priority.
For years, people throughout the region have been calling for renewed investment in Appalachia, which powered America’s industrial ascendancy for more than a century while suffering from widespread pollution and poverty.
But citizens are not simply waiting for help. Rather, they have been taking bold steps toward creating a positive future for their families.
In Virginia, one example is the Clinch River Valley Initiative, a multi-partner effort to link downtown revitalization in Southwest Virginia communities with outdoor recreation along the Clinch River.
Another example, in Kentucky, is “Appalachia’s Bright Future,” a project hosted by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth that connects people and ideas to nourish and promote economic diversity efforts occurring in the region.
And in West Virginia, Sustainable Williamson is a living lab of “community-driven processes to breathe life back into central Appalachia.”
These are just a few of many efforts underway region wide, and Appalachian Voices is collaborating with citizens and other organizations to pursue opportunities to diversify the economy while honoring the natural and cultural heritage.
President Obama identified a suite of ideas in his budget proposal — funding for job training, improved infrastructure, restoration of forests, waters, and abandoned mines, and other tools to diversify the region’s economy and support communities. His proposal signals that the White House believes the country must stand behind Appalachian communities as we move toward a 21st-century economy that is no longer dominated by coal.
Let’s work together to hold him to it.
For the mountains,
Frankfort – A coalition of citizens groups today filed a motion to intervene in a state enforcement action against Frasure Creek Mining for violating the Clean Water Act at its coal mining operations in eastern Kentucky. Last November, the groups identified thousands of instances where Frasure Creek had falsified water pollution discharge monitoring reports and sent the company a notice of their intent to sue. In response, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed a complaint against Frasure Creek for these violations in the agency’s administrative court.
The groups are seeking to intervene in the state’s enforcement action to ensure that Frasure Creek is held fully accountable for the violations, and that the state secures sufficient corrective action, which is particularly important because of the company’s past violations. In 2010, citizens’ groups had uncovered similarly falsified discharge monitoring reports by Frasure Creek, and sent the company a notice of intent to sue to enforce the Clean Water Act. The state stepped in, pre-empting the lawsuit, and reached a settlement with Frasure Creek that amounted to a slap on the wrist. The settlement was thrown out by Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd in December, but the state has appealed.
“The cabinet’s previous enforcement actions were clearly too weak, because Frasure Creek has returned to its practice of covering up pollution violations by re-using old data,” said Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist for Appalachian Voices. “We want to make sure enforcement is adequate this time.”
“The people of Kentucky deserve clean water, and companies need to know that they can’t hide behind an agency that accepts false reports,” said Ted Withrow, a former cabinet employee, now a volunteer for Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
“Frasure Creek is not the only company turning in false reports to the state, and the cabinet needs to make an example out of them,” said Kentucky Riverkeeper Pat Banks. “Without accurate information, how can we expect to have real enforcement, or know if our water is safe?”
Today’s motion to intervene was sent by Appalachian Voices, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club. The groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.