In a commentary in Capitol Connections magazine out this week, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia characterizes the job of meeting new climate change pollution reduction goals this way: “In 1962, President Kennedy challenged our nation to go the moon by 1969. If America can get to the moon in 7 years, emitting one-third less air pollution in 15 years is surely within our grasp.”
A major goal of Appalachian Voices’ and our partners’ in recent years has been to set Virginia on the track toward a safe, reliable and affordable energy future, which has meant working hard to shake our state out of the status quo. Virginia has never had a binding state renewable energy standard, and advocates have long stressed the need for both utility-owned and non-utility projects to harness clean power on a large scale.
So where does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan put Virginia? The rule represents the first requirement for fighting climate change by cutting pollution from power plants. If we use it well, the Clean Power Plan can incentivize energy efficiency programs and drive growth in solar — two ways to ensure a more secure grid and shrink bills for electric customers. But there are possible pitfalls too.
One way in which a national plan aiming for a 32 percent reduction of carbon pollution from power plants helps Virginia is by the signal it sends. It’s a further indication as to the direction the market is going. There’s a wrinkle, however, that has some renewable energy advocates worried, and it’s very relevant in Virginia: the role of new natural gas-fired power plants.
One reason for concern about possible increased gas use in Virginia is that our state’s emissions target is fairly easy to achieve. Though one wouldn’t know it from the histrionics of some politicians who oppose the standards. In a troubling development that threatens to derail Virginia’s compliance process, some state legislators are using dire-sounding warnings about electricity reliability and costs — the same red herring arguments that surfaced last year — to attempt to take away the McAuliffe administration’s authority to implement a state plan. Some insist on General Assembly approval of Virginia’s implementation plan.
The adverse effects if Virginia dramatically increases its use of natural gas are clear: higher demand for a fuel with a lifecycle that’s harmful to communities and dangerous to the environment, from the risks to water from fracking, to the impacts of dirty pipelines, to the methane released during production and transportation. More investments in a fossil fuel source are also bound to diminish the incentive for utilities to incorporate renewable energy projects into their plans. Think of how much solar power Virginia could build for the same price as 8,000 megawatts worth of new natural gas plants.
When it comes to the cost of electricity, a report by Public Citizen shows that the Clean Power Plan can cut Virginians’ electricity bills by between 7.7 and 8.4 percent by 2030, and that greater reductions are possible when well-designed energy efficiency programs are launched — programs that will also boost the economy by creating outsource-proof jobs.
Unfortunately, these affordability conclusions are in spite of and not because of Virginia’s enactment of a so-called “rate freeze” law, which is apparent in two major ways: the “freeze” goes into effect now and expires in 2020, and it turns out that the law creates a rate floor rather than a rate ceiling by blocking increases to base rates but not increases to cover infrastructure costs (which are the exact kind of costs that would ostensibly result from the need to comply with a pollution rule.)
That action is an example of why it will be so critical for Virginians to engage during this upcoming 2016 legislative session. We can press our elected officials to take steps that advance a vision of safe, affordable and reliable energy if we all take the time to participate.
Stay connected and watch for updates as we support the McAuliffe administration’s role in setting Virginia’s compliance plan, and if you have not yet provided a comment to officials about our state’s approach to the Clean Power Plan, do so here or via firstname.lastname@example.org by the Oct. 13 deadline.
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Earlier this year, former Kentucky state Rep. Keith Hall was convicted of bribing a state mine inspector while the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet looked the other way. It was only after the Lexington Herald-Leader revealed the bribery through an open records request that the FBI began an investigation.
Now, the Louisville Courier-Journal has uncovered a confidentiality agreement between the cabinet and Whitesburg, Ky.-based Childers Oil Company that would have kept secret a proposed lawsuit settlement between the cabinet and the oil company.
As Tom Loftus of the Courier-Journal writes, “The proposed settlement in the case against Childers Oil Co. contained a sweeping confidentiality clause in which cabinet officials agreed to seal the settlement and ‘forever remain silent at all times and places and under all circumstances’ regarding all aspects of the settlement — even the existence of the settlement itself.”
The Courier-Journal, and subsequently the public, only found out about the agreement because a judge was required to reject it since it had not been signed by the cabinet’s lawyer.
The lawsuit stems from a February 2011 incident in which Childers Oil Company, owned by Whitesburg businessman Don Childers, leaked diesel fuel into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The fuel made it into the city’s water supply, triggering a three-day water advisory. Many residents were not immediately notified of the chemical’s presence in the water supply. Businesses and restaurants were critically impacted by the leak.
As a resident of Whitesburg with a vested interest in seeing my community transition to a sustainable economy independent of the region’s collapsing coal industry, this is especially troubling. This month two restaurants and a moonshine distillery opened their doors in our community. It isn’t hard to see how incidents like the 2011 diesel spill and future water advisories — they occur with frightening regularity here — make it hard for institutions to do business.
But even more importantly is what this says about the agencies that are supposed to be looking out for our health and safety. As my colleague Evan Smith told the Courier-Journal:
“The most important danger that comes from this is not what’s actually in the water, it’s the public perception that you can’t trust what comes out of your pipe and what the government is doing to protect the water. And when you’ve got confidential settlements that look like sweetheart deals, it further erodes the public’s trust in our government’s process and ability for protecting our drinking water.”
This point was driven home at a recent public hearing in Lexington on the proposed Stream Protection Rule. I listened in amazement as state Rep. Jim Gooch decried the rule — which is aimed at cutting down on the amount of mining waste dumped into streams — as pointless and unnecessary because, according to Gooch, “the biggest threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky is straight piping.”
By “straight piping,” Gooch is referring to the act of running a sewage line directly from a house to a creek, rather than a municipal sewage system or septic tank. This is very common in topographically rugged and economically distressed areas like eastern Kentucky.
And Gooch wasn’t the wasn’t the only one blaming Kentuckians for their water quality problems. Multiple politicians at this hearing claimed that the “trash and litter problem” was a greater threat to the region’s streams than industrial pollution.
This isn’t particularly surprising. Misleading rhetoric about the “true threats” to ecological and human health gets peddled every time new regulations threaten the coal industry’s bottom line. What’s truly egregious here is that Jim Gooch is the chair of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. His comments display a shocking disconnect from what’s actually going on on the ground in eastern Kentucky.
While it is true that straight piping is a significant threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky, it’s dangerous to assume that phenomena like straight piping and litter, as opposed to diesel spills and mining pollution, are entirely separate issues. Separating them out and assigning them arbitrary prioritization conveniently diverts attention away from the issue at hand. The need to address one problem in no way diminishes the need to address the other.
But these diversion tactics are quite lucrative. A follow-up investigation by the Courier-Journal revealed that Don Childers, a registered Republican, and others affiliated with Childers Oil Co. donated a combined $4,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party while Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration was negotiating its secret settlement with the company.
Sadly, whether it’s agreeing to secret settlement deals over diesel spills or blaming Kentucky citizens for their water quality problems, these politicians and the agencies they oversee reveal whose interests they truly serve: those of the fossil fuel industry.
The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule ends on Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.
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Instead, the utility proposes to build substantial amounts of new gas-fired power plants in Virginia. It’s 2015, and Dominion intends to lock our state into decades of further dependence on fossil fuels. The Virginia State Corporation Commission needs to hear from you now – ask the Commission to require Dominion to build non-emitting wind and solar power and to invest in energy efficiency.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which supplies power to 155 utility companies in the Southeast, has released a second round of grants for energy efficiency makeovers. Cleveland Utilities in Tennessee will be another Appalachian energy-provider receiving millions of dollars to retrofit its customers’ homes. The funding stems from TVA’s settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Act in 2011 for violations of the Clean Air Act.
In September, the Knoxville Utility Board and the Knox County Community Action Committee launched the Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover (KEEM) program with $15 million from the first round of TVA grant funding. KEEM will be providing energy efficiency upgrades to 1,200 homes over the next two years in the area.
The program promises to bring a host of benefits to the community. Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently released a summary of findings on the effect of weatherization assistance programs nationwide. According to the summary, “Weatherization provides cost-effective energy savings to American families, provides additional health and safety benefits, supports jobs, and provides a stable platform for additional investment in energy efficiency.”
In 2010 alone, with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, weatherization supported 28,000 jobs nationwide and generated savings for residents amounting to a whopping $1.1 billion. Not only did the influx of capital significantly improve the economy, the nation’s carbon footprint shrunk by 7,382,000 metric tons.
As we reported previously, clean energy jobs in Tennessee are growing at three times the rate of overall job growth in the state. Appalachian Voices is working with utilities, businesses and other nonprofit partners in east Tennessee and western North Carolina to promote job creation and energy savings in Appalachia by establishing programs provide up-front, debt-free funding assistance so residents can enjoy energy-efficiency home improvements sooner, rather than later.
To find out how you can help get your utility on board, contact Amy Kelly today!
>> Get a free self-audit, $10 gift card to Home Depot and energy savings kit through TVA’s Energy Right Solutions program. (Not sure if you’re in TVA’s service territory? Check this map.)]]>
The long-awaited update to the 32-year-old standards for wastewater discharges from America’s power plants were finally released on Sept. 30 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The “effluent limitations guidelines” are a giant step in the right direction towards protecting the environment and the health of citizens.
Coal-fired power plants are responsible for polluting our streams, rivers and lakes with billions of pounds of toxic waste every year, accounting for more than 60% of heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and selenium in our waters. Numerous studies link this pollution to fish kills, deformed wildlife and contaminated drinking water supplies.
The most important component of the updated rule is a requirement that power plants convert to dry handling of fly ash (from the smokestacks) and bottom ash (left in the boilers). This should eliminate the toxins from wet-ash impoundments, which contributes more than 60% of all toxic waste discharges to our waters and is responsible for the impairment of thousand of miles of streams and rivers.
>> Read a good summary of the rule from EarthJustice’s Thom Cmar.
EPA heard from many hundreds of citizens around the country–including Appalachian Voices members and activists–who urged the agency for the last several years to issue strong rules to protect our waters.
This rule is the good news we have been waiting for. Combined with the coal ash rule that EPA issued last year, it represent a huge stride towards finally staunching coal ash pollution that has been happening for decades. It sends a message that the free license to pollute has ended.
As power plants across the country start to implement the new standards, and the real costs of coal-generated electricity are considered, it is my hope that it drives the South, and the nation, towards the more cost-effective solutions of energy efficiency and renewable sources.]]>
Please RSVP below!
Additional information to help you prepare:
Be sure to look through the Surry-Yadkin EMC Member Guide. Also, read the centerfold pages of the Carolina Connection magazine to see key financial figures for Surry-Yadkin EMC, the utility you own!
Consider these talking points:
• Last year, Surry-Yadkin set a new record, selling more than $50 million in energy services. That also means that members are using more energy than ever – averaging more than 13,000 kWh per year for each member. (That’s more than $1,000 a year.)
• The cooperative is in a strong financial position with $30 million in prior profits (“patronage capital”) accumulated on the balance sheet, which is a good assurance for the $56 million in long-term debt outstanding for investments the cooperative has made in upgrading its infrastructure.
Communities impacted by coal ash celebrated a pair of positive strides recently, only to be disappointed by another fast move on the part of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and Duke Energy.
One step forward …
On September 23, community organizations and residents advocating for coal ash cleanup held a press conference at the General Assembly building in downtown Raleigh to announce the formation of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (A.C.T.) Against Coal Ash. Media covering the conference came from the Greensboro Triad, the Raleigh Triangle and Charlotte, with TV and print news both represented.
The new grassroots alliance demands that the DEQ and state decision-makers hold Duke Energy financially accountable for dealing with its leaking coal ash pits across the state in a long-term, safe manner, and that the company remediate the contamination of groundwater and residential property. The alliance also calls for the assessment of the environmental and health effects of coal ash to be transparent.
Duke Energy’s official response was to state that their site evaluations indicate that groundwater is generally flowing away from public wells, and that the presence of a toxic chemical, vanadium, is naturally occurring—even at levels 38 times higher than allowable concentrations, as was recently discovered in a privately owned well near Duke’s G.G. Allen power plant.
As Larry Mathis, president of the homeowner’s association near the Allen plant, asked: “Trust them? I think not.”
>> Watch a video of the conference here.
Another step forward …
On Monday night, the Stokes County Commission held a public hearing on a proposed moratorium on fracking in the county. Community members packed the courthouse, and almost all who spoke favored the moratorium. The commissioners, noting the environmental and public threat already in the county due to Duke Energy’s coal ash pits at the Belews power plant, unanimously voted for a three-year moratorium on fracking. Although not an outright ban, the moratorium prohibits zoning permits from being filed and any resulting violations will result in a $500 per day fine. Their decision was celebrated with tears, hugs and a standing ovation from those in attendance.
And a step back …
Just yesterday, however, DEQ was patting itself on the back with the announcement of a settlement with Duke Energy, which will pay a fine of $7 million for groundwater contamination related to the utility’s coal ash pits. The fine is much less than the $25 million the DEQ originally sought for pollution violations at Duke’s Sutton Lake power plant outside of Wilmington, N.C. In addition, the $7 million will be spread between all of Duke’s 14 power plants in the state coming to just $500,000 per site for cleanup of groundwater contamination.
The DEQ says the settlement will accelerate the cleanup at the Belews and Sutton sites. But, as outlined in the Coal Ash Management Act, Duke Energy is already required to accelerate the cleanups since coal ash contamination was found outside of their property boundary. This toothless P.R. move meant to show that DEQ is being tough on Duke Energy has potentially detrimental consequences for N.C. residents. Frank Holleman, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, points to Duke’s statements regarding the settlement as intention to prevent any further action brought against the utility giant.
As Bobby Jones of the Downeast Coal Ash Coalition said during last week’s press conference launching the A.C.T. Against Coal Ash: “This is not something where we can drop a few million dollars and make some nice newsreels and it will go away.”]]>
Get involved — let your voice be heard!
Visit the Southwest Virginia New Economy website to attend upcoming town hall meeting.
During October 2015, Appalachian Voices, along with our partner group Virginia Organizing, is convening eight community visioning forums across Virginia’s coalfield counties to gather community-level input that is critical to inform the area’s economic development planning. The forums are free and open to the public.
We are targeting our outreach to a diverse range of community members with varying interests and backgrounds. Input gathered at the forums will be compiled and presented to local planning district commissions to inform their decision-making on the federal POWER initiative grant applications.
Additionally, we’ll prepare a presentation for the coalfield counties’ boards of supervisors that outlines the common themes and proposals emerging from the forums, and work with community leaders to deliver the presentations in each of the counties where forums are held.
Finally, Appalachian Voices will work with Virginia Organizing and our other partners to maintain the momentum created by the forums in a way that continues to build community-level power as the region pursues economic development strategies in the future.
>> Hear what Mark Caruso, Lou Ann Jessee Wallace and other local citizens envision for the future.
Appalachian Voices is dedicated to ending mountaintop removal and ensuring that no more mountains are destroyed for coal. But what about the thousands of acres across Appalachia that have already been scarred by mining? While there are a handful of “model reclamation” sites in the region, the vast majority of previously mined land — especially former mountaintop removal sites — linger as wastelands.
Appalachian Voices works alongside local residents toward a common goal of turning these sacred landscapes into healthy, vibrant ecosystems once more. And, where appropriate, we’re working to transform these abandoned mines into future sites of sustainable economic development activity.
There are two federal programs that we leverage to achieve our goals, both of which spend millions of dollars annually in Central Appalachia. We are working to make sure that funding is spent on projects driven by local engagement, and that will yield the best results.
The Abandoned Mined Land (AML) fund was set up under the federal Surface Mine Reclamation and Control Act of 1977 and was designed to generate funds to clean up abandoned mine sites that predate the law. Currently, 28 cents per ton of surface mined coal and 12 cents per ton of coal mined underground go into the AML trust fund, which is administered by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. These funds are then distributed to state agencies to finance clean-up projects.
Priority is given to projects that address public safety or environmental concerns, and while this has reduced hazards and pollution, it’s done little to spur economic development in the communities near these sites. Under the proposed POWER+ Plan, $1 billion would be allocated over the next five years to fund projects that have a direct economic development benefit. This funding would be in addition to the approximately $2.4 million allocated in 2015 for abandoned mine land cleanup, and would be a huge boon to areas struggling to diversify their economies in the wake of the coal industry’s decline.
>> Read our blog post about how to improve the AML program
>> The Office of Surface Mining’s webpage on abandoned mine lands
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program funding is available across the country to clean up old industrial sites. Funding is distributed by grants to local governments or agencies, and priority is given to projects that demonstrate an economic development component as well as strong environmental justice and community involvement aspects. The 2014 federal budget included $163.7 million for brownfields grants nationwide.
>> EPA’s webpage on the brownfields program]]>