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Va. foes of Atlantic Coast Pipeline applaud N.C. delay, urge Gov. McAuliffe to likewise seek more information

CONTACT:
Cat McCue, Appalachian Voices, cat@appvoices.org, 434-293-6373

NC pipeline protestors

North Carolinians walked the N.C. route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline in 2017 to protest the project

VIRGINIA – Late yesterday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration delayed until mid-December its decision on whether to permit the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, requesting additional information on its potential impact on more than 300 nearby waterways. This action follows on the heels of a move by West Virginia state regulators on Wednesday to rescind their approved permit for a similar pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Statement from Allegheny Blue-Ridge Alliance (ABRA), Lew Freeman, chair and executive director:

“We applaud North Carolina Governor Cooper’s move to delay a decision on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to ensure his state is properly analyzing the tremendous harm this pipeline would have on his citizens’ water quality. Because this pipeline is scheduled to run through Virginia as well, we call on Governor Terry McAuliffe to take note and insist on this level of scrutiny in Virginia’s consideration of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“These proposed pipelines would cross many of our state’s pristine watersheds, rivers, streams, springs, and wetlands – bringing significant risks to the quality and safety of our water supply. It’s essential to the safety and health of Virginians, as well as to the farming and other local industries, that these risks are thoroughly assessed, including the high potential for blasting, erosion, and soil erosion during the pipeline’s construction. We hope Gov. Cooper’s decision inspires Gov. McAuliffe to make sure Virginia fulfills its responsibility under the federal Clean Water Act to avoid risks to the waters of the Commonwealth.”

Statement from Appalachian Voices, Cat McCue, communications director, regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline:

“While Gov. Cooper’s decision relates to a different energy company than the developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the pending state permit in question in Virginia is equally bad and possibly worse than what’s being considering in North Carolina. Two days ago, regulators in West Virginia rescinded their approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline under the federal Clean Water Act. They saw that they did not have adequate information and a full understanding of the impact this pipeline would have on water quality. We are just as in the dark in Virginia. We cannot jeopardize the health and safety of the people of Virginia, and we urge Gov. McAuliffe to re-assess his stance on this and demand the time to fully consider what’s at stake.”

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Va. regulators reject APCO’s misguided renewable energy program

SCC commissioners

Contact:
Peter Anderson, Appalachian Voices, 434-293-6373, peter@appvoices.org

SCC commissioners

From left: Commissioners Mark C. Christie, James C. Dimitri, and Judith Williams Jagdmann

Yesterday, the Virginia State Corporation Commission rejected a program proposed by Appalachian Power Company that would have charged customers well above market rates if they elected the utility’s proposed program for 100% renewable energy.

Appalachian Voices and others who participated in the SCC proceeding were concerned the program would have misled environmentally-conscious consumers. The program did not commit to adding any new renewable energy resources to the grid; it simply repackaged existing renewables that are already part of APCO’s standard rate. In its ruling, the commission determined that APCO “has not established that the rate proposed … is just and reasonable.”

Critics were also concerned APCO’s program would have prevented competitors from offering a 100% renewable power option to customers in APCO’s service territory, due to a clause in Virginia law. This could have forced independent renewable power providers to shut down, leading to a net loss of renewable power in Virginia.

A statement from Peter Anderson, Virginia Program Manager for Appalachian Voices:

“This decision is a victory for consumers and for renewable energy advocates. If a utility company proposes a renewable energy program that locks out competition, that program ought to be driven by new, Virginia-based renewable energy facilities and priced competitively. The price tag for building wind and solar resources has never been lower. Utility programs marketing renewables to their captive customers should reflect that.”

A statement from Cale Jaffe, Director of the University of Virginia School of Law’s Environmental and Regulatory Law Clinic, which represented Appalachian Voices before the SCC:

“Under Virginia law, if the commission approves a power company’s proposal for 100% renewable energy, independent competitors then are locked out of the process. That’s an extraordinary power that the law grants the commission. It’s the power to tell an existing, renewable energy business that it can no longer enter into new contracts with new customers. The commission recognized the need to demand that any power company’s renewable power tariff must be just and reasonable for customers before blocking access to alternative options.”

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Massive mountaintop removal mine threatens Clearfork Valley

April_Matt_Cooper_Ridge_truck_1400
April Jarocki and Appalachian Voices' Matt Hepler stand next to mining equipment next to the Hatfield Cemetery near Cooper Ridge Mine.

April Jarocki and Appalachian Voices’ Matt Hepler watch mining equipment next to the Hatfield Cemetery near Cooper Ridge Mine.

The energy supply of the nation has largely shifted towards natural gas in recent years and, slowly but surely, renewables are also gaining market share. These trends have at times been interpreted to mean that mountaintop removal coal mining is over. This is far from the truth.

The devastating practice of destroying entire mountains and disposing of mining-waste into headwater streams is still happening across the Appalachian region. For folks living beneath these mines, the assertion that mountaintop removal is over can feel like a slap in the face. Despite dynamics and shifts in energy markets, when there is a mountaintop removal mine above your community, the issue is as dire as ever.

The Clearfork Valley of Tennessee has been intensely surface-mined going back decades. As a result, the ridges and hillsides of Campbell and Claiborne counties display a patchwork of mining scars in various states of affliction and gradual healing. Some of these scars are pre-regulation Abandoned Mine Lands while others illustrate the failures of common reclamation standards. The area’s waterways are contaminated to varying degrees with metals, salts and sediment, and support far less aquatic life than they once did.

Now, Kopper Glo Mining is moving forward with a nearly 1,500-acre mountaintop removal mine on Cooper Ridge, dealing yet another massive blow to the ecology and communities of this beautiful and resilient area.

Agency missteps in the permitting process

Kopper Glo began operations on Cooper Ridge Mine this past spring, clearing initial, albeit insufficient, regulatory hurdles. Now the company is seeking a Phase II National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit required under the Clean Water Act for discharging pollutants into public waterways. The second phase allows the company to release higher levels of pollutants than allowable under the Phase I permit.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s (TDEC) issuance of water pollution permits in phases is a notable problem. This allows the agency — whose mission includes “protecting and improving the quality of Tennessee’s air, land, and water through a responsible regulatory system” — to ignore the true total impacts of a mining operation on adjacent waterways by only considering portions of the mine’s impacts at any one time.

Another issue is that Kopper Glo and regulatory agencies consider this operation a “re-mining” project, suggesting that the area is already impacted by mining and that the Cooper Ridge mountaintop removal mine will serve to reclaim and improve previously mined areas. The truth is that only around one-third of the permitted area has been impacted by older strip mines. Rather than repair old scars of mining, the Cooper Ridge permit will simply triple the footprint of mining on this mountain.

Finally, Kopper Glo has a long history of violations at other mines in the area. Regulatory agencies like TDEC and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement should not be so quick to grant additional permits to a company that has consistently demonstrated either an inability or unwillingness to operate within the confines of the law.

What’s wrong with this mine?

Any surface mine of this size will have severe impacts on ecology and nearby communities. This is especially true in areas like East Tennessee, where headwater streams abound and where homes are crowded into narrow valleys often right at the toe of mining operations. Concerns include excessive runoff, sedimentation of streams, alterations to groundwater hydrology and the discharge of high levels of selenium and other harmful substances into waterways.

In addition to adverse impacts to ground and surface water, the Cooper Ridge mine threatens important local community and cultural assets. The permit boundary sits just a half-mile behind Clairfield Elementary School, presenting concerns for the health and safety of the students, teachers and community members engaged in activities at the school. The mine also surrounds the historic and still-in-use Hatfield Cemetery — an area where logging related to the mine has already occurred and where mine workers are now parking trucks and equipment.

Speak out against the Cooper Ridge mountaintop removal mine

You can support residents of the Clearfork Valley by attending a public hearing on September 20 to voice your opposition to this mine. The hearing will be held from 7:00-9:00 p.m. in the Recreation Building at Cove Lake State Park, 110 Cove Park Ln., Caryville, TN. Visit this page to RSVP, find a ride and connect with other people and resources if you’d like to attend this hearing. If you can’t make it to the hearing but want to make sure your voice is heard, you can submit a comment to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Whether you speak out at the public hearing or submit your comments online, preparation and clarity are key. Feel free to utilize any of the talking points below in developing your comments.

Talking Points

  • Permitting in Phases: TDEC must consider all of the discharges from the entire proposed mine in a single permit process. By issuing water pollution permits in at least two separate phases, TDEC has failed to account for the full impact to the receiving streams.
  • Impacts of Re-Mining: TDEC should not assume that re-mining will lead to an overall decrease in pollution from the site. In fact, evidence suggests that streams in the Clear Fork watershed have only recently begun to recover from the pollution impacts of historic mining and that recent mining has started to reverse that trend.
  • Compliance History: The agencies should not reward a chronic violator with permits for a new surface mine. The permit application lists at least 17 notices of violation from OSM to Kopper Glo for its other coal mining operations in less than three years, including many violations related to water quality.
  • Cumulative Impacts: Permitting authorities must address the cumulative impacts of water pollution discharged from all existing and proposed strip mines in the Clear Fork watershed before issuing any new permits.
  • Selenium: The draft permit violates the Clean Water Act because it fails to fully evaluate the reasonable potential of discharges from the mine to violate water quality standards for selenium. Given that selenium is known to be present in variable concentrations in coal seams in Tennessee, TDEC should require the applicant to conduct and report representative core sampling to determine whether selenium is likely to be present in the coal to be mined from the site.
  • Groundwater Impacts: This mine would affect groundwater because it will change the hydrology of the east side of Cooper Ridge and release pollutants now contained in the coal and the overburden at the site. Groundwater and surface water resources are closely connected in this area. There are at least seven households and two churches that use springs or wells for their water supply.
  • Impacts on Sensitive Species: The blackside dace, a freshwater fish, is protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, in part because of pollution from surface coal mining. The Cooper Ridge mine will discharge polluted runoff water to tributaries of the Clear Fork, an important corridor that blackside dace use seasonally to seek spawning habitat in smaller streams. Blackside dace are extremely intolerant of elevated conductivity levels caused by dissolved solids from polluted mining runoff. Any discharge permit for the mine must impose limits on conductivity to avoid further harm to blackside dace.
  • Community Cemetery: This mine will be near family cemeteries which must be protected. Community members must be able to access family cemeteries on Cooper Ridge, and we ask that the deep mine portal be moved further than 100 feet away from the Hatfield Cemetery.
  • Economics: Tourism is important to the current and future economy of Tennessee. The Tackett Creek Wildlife Management area surrounds the proposed Cooper Ridge mine. This area has great potential for increased ecotourism that can benefit Tennessee’s economy more than another strip mine.
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Solarize Wise (Va.) running strong with Sigora Solar on board

Solar panels on roof of jail

Contact:
Lydia Graves, Solarize Wise Program Coordinator, Lydia@appvoices.org, (276) 679-1691

NOTE TO EDITORS:
These photos (here and here) are available to download and print. Caption: Solar thermal hot water system on the roof of the Duffield Regional Jail in Scott County, Va. Photo credit: Christine Gyovai.

Solar panels on roof of jail

Solar panels on roof of Duffield Regional Jail in Southwest Virginia. Photo: Christine Gyovai.

In the last several months, more than 45 people have taken the first step toward going solar by signing up for a free assessment of their homes, farms, or businesses. The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, said program coordinator Lydia Graves, an AmeriCorps member with the nonprofit organization Appalachian Voices.

“We’ve heard from people that they were interested in solarizing their home, but they didn’t know of any businesses serving the area before we launched Solarize Wise. Other people who have looked into solar in the past but couldn’t afford it are now revisiting the idea because the price has dropped so dramatically, and it makes financial sense for them.”

Similar “solarize” programs are taking off around the country. They serve to connect a municipality or community group with a local company to perform all the solar installations for people who buy solar systems during the the solarize campaign. The installer is able to offer lower prices because they get bulk purchase discounts on materials and solar equipment. It also helps the solar company save money on marketing and advertising.

Sigora Solar was selected for Solarize Wise after submitting a proposal detailing the company’s experience, licenses, products and competitive pricing model. Solarize Wise participants are being offered a price about 20% below regular market rates for solar.

“Now is the ideal time to jump on board,” Graves says. “If you’re a solar energy novice, don’t worry. Sign up for a free home assessment and Sigora will walk you through the basics and help you decide is solar is right for you.” She noted that the service ends on September 29 and encouraged citizens to get learn more by visiting the website.

In 2013, Sigora helped save Southwest Virginia taxpayer money by installing a solar hot water system on the Duffield Regional Jail. That project came in 15% under budget and was finished ahead of schedule, resulting in a savings of up to $40,000 dollars a year. Now Sigora is helping Wise County area residents save money with Solarize Wise.

“We at Sigora feel incredibly honored to be part of the Solarize Wise program,” said Jon Proffitt, director of business development and commercial sales for the Virginia-based company. “We’re excited to see the solar momentum build in and around this area of the state. There is a lot of potential for solar as a driver of economic development and consumer choice. Sigora has a tremendous amount of passion for helping our friends and neighbors transition to a clean energy lifestyle while saving money. We are eager to get started installing solar in in Southwest Virginia.”

Solarize Wise has deeper impacts than the personal benefits to homeowners. The Solar Workgroup is committed to creating local workforce opportunities including internships and apprenticeships. Sigora Solar shares those goals and is offering opportunities to some of the local students who are already being trained as solar industry professionals at Mountain Empire Community College.

In 2016, MECC was honored by the Virginia Community College System for the development of the mobile solar trailer known as SPARC-E, which stands for Solar-Powered Alternative Renewable Clean Energy. It’s a 5-kilowatt solar system built and designed by MECC students. Complete with battery storage capacity of 900 watts, SPARC-E brings electricity wherever it’s needed, providing the power source for medical services at the Wise County Rural Area Medical clinic or fun community events like a sound stage and bouncy house at the 2017 Southwest Virginia Solar Fair.

MECC Instructors Roger Greene and Bryce Shular are also on board with Solarize Wise and making inroads to create local jobs for their students. “The solar power installation courses we offer at MECC are designed with the intent of preparing our students for jobs in an industry that is taking hold in our region,” Greene says..” My hope and the hopes of the other faculty involved in this is that as solar power does becomes a viable option for employment in our area, we will already have an educated workforce capable of filling the need for professional installers. On the front end, I see projects like SPARC-E and Solarize Wise as the needed impetus for providing the public with access and a more clear understanding of solar power.”

As the energy economy evolves and solar continues to grow, Southwest Virginia needs to be ready, Graves says. Several counties in the area are pursuing the SolSmart Solar Ready certification to let businesses know Southwest Virginia welcomes them to open up shop. Nationwide, the solar industry now employs more people than oil, natural gas and coal industries combined, according to a 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Energy. Workforce development and certification training are crucial parts of Southwest Virginia’s economic goals.

Solarize Wise is a project of Appalachian Voices, the Wise County Cooperative Extension, the Wise Norton Chamber of Commerce, and People Inc.

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Duke Energy wants to raise your power bill

If utility regulators approve Duke Energy's requested rate hike, customers in North Carolina could pay hundreds more each year for electricity.

Attend one of the upcoming public hearings or send your comments to the North Carolina Utilities Commission today.

If utility regulators approve Duke Energy's requested rate hike, customers in North Carolina could pay hundreds more each year for electricity.

If utility regulators approve Duke Energy’s requested rate hike, customers in North Carolina could pay hundreds more each year for electricity.

Duke Energy is at it again.

The company that brought us the Dan River coal ash spill is asking the North Carolina Utilities Commission for approval to raise rates for its residential customers in North Carolina by more than 16 percent.

But the company already brings in billions in profits every year, and much of that is extracted from ratepayers who have no say in who they pay to power their homes. One of the largest electric utilities in the country, Duke Energy has a monopoly on electricity sales in North Carolina.

The requested rate hikes will cover the required cleanup of coal ash at sites across the state, sunk costs into a nuclear plant in South Carolina that is unlikely to be completed and the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline — a $5 billion project that could lead the company’s to increase our bills again in the future.

Instead of raising our rates to make amends for the Clean Water Act crimes exposed in the aftermath of the Dan River spill, the company should foot the bill to responsibly clean up and process the toxic coal ash at every site rather than pushing the “cap in place” method and leaving ash in the largest impoundments in the state. It should also move forward with providing a source of clean water for the hundreds of families who have relied on bottled water for more than 800 days.

To make matters worse, Duke Energy executives want to nearly double the “fixed charge” — the amount you pay just to be connected to the grid — from $11.13 to $19.50. This change would disproportionately impact the folks who use the least power. Overall, the rate hike would have an outsized impact on low-wage workers, seniors on fixed incomes and communities of color.

A Duke Energy radio ad that recently hit the airwaves touts the company’s steps toward a “smarter energy future” such as investing in solar and responsibly cleaning up coal ash to ensure energy costs are affordable.

But, as has been the case, what the company says it different than what it does. And North Carolinians are taking notice and joining together at five announced hearings in September and October and others that will come later in 2017 or early 2018.

A diverse coalition including environmental organizations, economic and racial justice groups, and directly impacted communities are ready to show that North Carolinians are opposed to Duke’s rate hike request. Because we’re already paying a price for Duke Energy’s mess: toxic pollution in our waterways and drinking water that is threatening our health and well being. It’s time for Duke to be held accountable.

Attend one of the upcoming public hearings or send your comments to the North Carolina Utilities Commission today.

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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice fights for coal — at any cost

"We should never forget who brung us to the dance," Gov. Jim Justice said of the coal industry during the 2017 State of the State address. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
"We should never forget who brung us to the dance," Gov. Jim Justice said of the coal industry during the 2017 State of the State address. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“We should never forget who brung us to the dance,” Gov. Jim Justice said of the coal industry during the 2017 State of the State address. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Long before Jim Justice became the governor of West Virginia, he was well known across Central Appalachia as a billionaire coal company owner.

Much like President Trump, Justice campaigned not as a politician, but as a savvy businessman who promised to simultaneously clean up politics and revitalize the economy. That message apparently resonated with voters who were either unconcerned with Justice’s total lack of experience in elected office or unwilling to face the realities of the coal industry’s future.

Justice’s early career also bears some resemblance to Trump’s — his family history is modest, but his father became wealthy and Justice was catapulted into business ownership at a young age. Both sides of Justice’s family worked in the coal camps. His father, Jim Sr., worked his way up in the coal mines until he owned his own company, which he sold for several million dollars in the 1970s.

Jim Jr. started out in the family agriculture business and later inherited the family’s coal and corn farming businesses when his father died in 1993. The stated value of those businesses was about $25 million at the time. There is no doubt that Justice is a shrewd businessman. He is West Virginia’s only billionaire, worth an estimated $1.6 billion. Before becoming governor in January, he was the president or CEO of at least 50 companies, including the famed Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Like Trump, the extent to which Justice has separated himself from his businesses while serving in public office remains unclear.

Despite his business savvy, or perhaps because of it, the motivations behind his political aspirations are difficult to determine. In 2015, Justice switched from the Republican to the Democratic party and announced his bid for West Virginia governor. West Virginia has a long history as a left-leaning state, typically electing Democrats to most state positions and voting for the Democratic presidential candidate until the early 2000s. The state has been turning red in recent years. Justice won the 2016 gubernatorial race, beating the Republican candidate by almost 7 percent. Just seven months later, Justice announced his return to the Republican Party, on stage, at a Trump rally in Huntington, W.Va.

Justice is certainly working to promote Appalachian coal mining. He has pushed Trump to subsidize coal-fired power plants to purchase Appalachian coal at a rate of $15 per ton. His argument for such a move? National security. Exploiting a culture of fear has become a popular tactic for many politicians lately, and Justice has apparently taken note. He argues that the United States has become too reliant on natural gas, which has been out-competing coal on a regular basis for the last few years. “Can you imagine what would happen if we lost the power in the East for a month, or two months, or three months?” Justice asked in a Bloomberg News interview. “It would be like a nuclear blast went off. You would lose hundreds of thousands of people. It would be just absolute chaos beyond belief.”

Many conservatives aren’t buying Justice’s plan. “Like corporate welfare queens everywhere, Justice pitches his plea for taxpayer bailouts in terms of jobs,” the conservative think tank Cato Institute said of the plan. “Yet Governor Justice’s proposal … would simply prolong the dying of an industry that has been declining for years, because West Virginia coal is increasingly expensive and difficult to mine, in the face of national and international competition.”

A troubled history with coal mines

In 2014, NPR published an in-depth report on fines owed by Justice’s mining companies. At the time, the companies owed nearly $2 million in fines and had more than four times the number of overdue fines than the next most-delinquent mine operator. The overdue fines are especially egregious, given Justice’s personal net worth. But even more problematic than the fines were the violations that led to them. Justice’s companies accumulated thousands of safety violations over the period covered in the NPR investigation, including 1,300 classified as likely to cause injury or illness, and more than 500 that are common in mine disasters.

The Justice-owned Dalton Branch Mine in Tazewell County, Va.

The Justice-owned Dalton Branch Mine in Tazewell County, Va.

The chief operating officer of Justice-owned Southern Coal, Tom Lusk, defended the company, stating that Southern needed to stand on its own, not be bailed out by Justice himself. Lusk argued that the delinquent fines did not actually jeopardize mine safety. A follow-up investigation in 2016 showed that Justice owed $15 million in taxes and fines across six states, including $1.38 million in new and unpaid mine safety penalties.

Justice companies’ violations cover environmental and administrative issues as well. A&G Coal Corp. has outstanding violations at a minimum of 10 mines in Virginia. The violations involve a wide range of issues, including mine maintenance and planning, and failure to pay fees. Justice mines in Tennessee have accumulated 15 violations across eight mines in the past three years.

Lately, Justice’s companies seem to be going on the offensive to balance their books. Three companies associated with Justice are claiming to have paid excessive taxes in Wise County. A&G Coal, Virginia Fuel Corp. and Nine Mile Mining filed a civil lawsuit alleging overbilling and incorrect tax assessment over the past three years and demanding more than half a million dollars from the county.

The companies allege that the overbilling arose from fees incorrectly assessed for mining machinery that has been idled. The companies have several mines in Southwest Virginia that have been idled since 2013 and 2014. This situation often occurs when the price for coal declines and companies choose to idle a mine until market conditions become more favorable. Given recent market conditions, many mines in Wise County and throughout Central Appalachia have been idled for four years or more, leaving large swaths of mined land barren with neither mining nor reclamation taking place.

Like much of Appalachia, Wise County is facing tough economic times as the area struggles to adapt to losses of coal jobs. The decline in active mining and in total population has dealt a massive blow to the county’s tax coffers. One consequence of this in recent years has been the consolidation of Wise County’s six public high schools into three — a move that has failed to fully mitigate consistent and growing budget shortfalls for the county school board. If Justice truly had Central Appalachia’s future in mind, he might suggest his coal companies pay what they owe, rather than pursue costly litigation against local and state agencies.

Justice’s companies in Kentucky are taking an even more aggressive approach. Kentucky Fuel Corp. is suing two officials from the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources after the agency attempted to collect millions of dollars in unpaid fines. “These lawsuits appear to be an attempt to intimidate public officials from performing their statutory duties to enforce coal mine reclamation laws,” John Mura, spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “The legal actions are entirely without merit and will be vigorously defended to protect our state government officials who devote their careers to safeguarding the land and the health of Kentucky citizens.”

Jim Justice clearly favors Central Appalachian coal; it’s largely how he made his fortune, so his motives are understandable, even if they’re not laudable. What is less clear is whether Justice is thinking about Central Appalachian people or the future of the region. Regardless of his motivations, his pie-in-the-sky proposal for keeping coal competitive does not make sense. After being mined for more than a century, Central Appalachian coal is scarce and expensive to mine. The region has reached a transition point. Appalachia needs leaders to guide it into a new economy, not politicians invested in only their own wealth and popularity.

Solarize Wise is running strong with Sigora Solar

Sigora Solar video clip

Earlier this summer, the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia kicked off Solarize Wise, a free community service to make it cheaper and easier for residents to access solar power in Wise County and the surrounding area.

More than 45 homes, farms, and businesses are already exploring how solar can be an attainable and smart choice for them after attending Solarize Wise info sessions earlier this month.

Solarize Wise participants are being offered a price about 20% below regular market rates for solar — making now the ideal time to jump on board. If you’re a solar energy novice, don’t worry. Sign up for a free home assessment online at SWVAsolar.org/solarize and we’ll walk you through the basics and help you decide is solar is right for you.

In a solarize program, a municipality or community group chooses a solar company to perform all the solar installations for the people who buy solar systems during the period of the solarize campaign. The installer is able to offer lower prices because they can get bulk purchase discounts on materials and solar equipment. It also helps the solar company save money on marketing and advertising.

solar panels

A solar array on an agricultural building, installed by Sigora Solar.

Sigora Solar was selected for
Solarize Wise after submitting a proposal detailing their experience, licenses, products and competitive pricing model. The Sigora team is excited to be working in Southwest Virginia again. In 2013 Sigora helped save Southwest Virginia taxpayer money by installing a solar hot water system on the Duffield Regional Jail. That project came in 15 percent under budget and was finished ahead of schedule, resulting in a savings of up to $40,000 dollars per year. Now Sigora is helping Wise County area residents save money with Solarize Wise.

Solarize Wise has deeper impacts than just the personal benefits to homeowners. The Solar Workgroup is committed to creating local workforce opportunities including internships and apprenticeships. Sigora Solar shares those goals and is offering opportunities to some of the local students who are already being trained as solar industry professionals at Mountain Empire Community College.

In 2016, Mountain Empire Community College was honored by the Virginia Community College System for the development of the mobile solar trailer known as SPARC-E. SPARC-E stands for Solar-Powered Alternative Renewable Clean Energy. It is a 5 kilowatt solar system built and designed by the community college’s students. Complete with battery storage capacity of 900 watts, SPARC-E brings electricity wherever it’s needed, providing the power source for medical services at the Wise County Rural Area Medical clinic or fun community events like a sound stage and bouncy house at the 2017 Southwest Virginia Solar Fair.

Attendees at the 2017 Southwest Virginia Solar Fair discuss about solar panels .

Attendees at the 2017 Southwest Virginia Solar Fair discuss about solar panels .


As the energy economy evolves and solar continues to grow, Southwest Virginia needs to be ready. Several counties in the area are pursuing the SolSmart Solar Ready certification to let businesses know that Southwest Virginia is a solar-friendly business location. The solar industry now employs more people than oil, natural gas and coal industries combined according to a 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Energy. Workforce development and certification training are crucial parts of Southwest Virginia’s economic goals.

The Southwest Virginia Solar Workgroup is dedicated to turning those goals into a reality. After brainstorming ways to diversify and revitalize the region’s economy at the 2016 Southwest Virginia Economic Forum, solar was identified as one of the key industries to pursue and the workgroup was created and tasked with formulating a roadmap for commercial scale solar projects. Flash forward to today — members of the workgroup are exploring several sites for upcoming development to save money for communities and continue Virginia’s energy-producing tradition.

Find out if solar power is a smart choice for your home, farm or business! Contact Lydia by emailing Lydia@appvoices.org or call (276) 679-1691 to sign up for a free solar assessment. More info available at SWVAsolar.org/solarize

Solarize Wise is a partnership between the Wise County and Norton Area Chambers of Commerce, Wise County Cooperative Extension, Mountain Empire Community College, People Inc., and Appalachian Voices.

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Re: The Problem With Pipelines

A closer look at an eroding pipe crossing a stream in middle Tennessee.
pipelines-mike-younger

Special to the Front Porch: Mike Younger, Nashville-based singer-songwriter, became involved in the struggle to prevent pipeline expansion when his community was informed that they were in the path of a massive fossil fuel infrastructure project. Co-author of the “2015 Field Study of Gas Pipeline Safety In Tennessee,” his efforts have expanded to include support for other communities in the path of fossil fuel development, including Standing Rock. He is currently promoting his new album “Little Folks Like You And Me” and performing in diverse communities across the U.S. Visit his website at mikeyounger.com/community

My compliments to the writers and editors behind the April/May Issue of The Appalachian Voice. The issue covered a wide array of problems stemming from the current push to expand and develop pipelines and pipeline infrastructure across the United States. I was encouraged to hear that my community in middle Tennessee is not the only one mounting serious resistance to this unwanted infrastructure. We are a little to the west of most Appalachian communities, but we feel our experience is worth sharing with our eastern neighbors.

A closer look at an eroding pipe crossing a stream in middle Tennessee.

A closer look at an eroding pipe crossing a stream in middle Tennessee. Photo from the “2015 Field Study of Gas Pipeline Safety In Tennessee”

In April 2015 a small group of residents in the community of Joelton received notifications that Kinder Morgan subsidiary Tennessee Gas Pipeline intended to construct a 60,000 horsepower compressor station (among the largest in the nation) in the midst of our rural, agricultural and residential neighborhood. Our community was given 30 days to comment, but from the beginning Federal Pre-Emption (Eminent Domain) loomed as the reality we were facing.

Map of the pipeline route in Tennessee

Map of the pipeline route in Tennessee

The interstate pipeline systems passing through middle Tennessee date back to the 1940s. Tennessee has never been known for safety or environmental standards, and the condition of this infrastructure was visibly poor in numerous areas, particularly at water crossings and in ravines where pipes are exposed to adverse conditions and impacts.

Myself and J.H.Armstong, a longtime resident of the Joelton community (most directly impacted by the proposed compressor station) undertook to photograph the poor condition and obvious maintenance problems. Although J.H. was killed in an automobile accident before our work was finished, I completed the study and had help compiling the data into the 2015 Field Study Of Gas Pipeline Safety In Tennessee, which was then entered into federal proceedings at FERC and also reported to PHMSA in January 2016.

PHMSA and FERC have both been criticized for having too close ties to the oil & gas industry. Both agencies waffled on issuing enforcement actions or reprimands against Kinder Morgan despite the obvious problems with interstate pipeline systems in Tennessee. This condition existed even before the Trump administration came in with further deregulation as a centerpiece policy.

John Henry Armstrong, III, co-author of the "2015 Field Study Of Gas Pipeline Safety In Tennessee" study, standing by a partially buried and eroding pipeline in a Tennessee stream

John Henry Armstrong, III, co-author of the “2015 Field Study Of Gas Pipeline Safety In Tennessee” study, standing by a partially buried and eroding pipeline in a Tennessee stream

As a community we developed several approaches to our legal challenge. At the Metro Council level (the legislative authority for Nashville and Davidson County), our representatives were able to introduce and pass legislation requiring industrial infrastructure — such as compressor stations — to be constructed on industrially-zoned land, and for toxic emissions to be contained to the property.

Our victory was short-lived, however. The Tennessee Air Pollution Control Board failed to protect the people of Tennessee by refusing to add our local ordinances to the State Implementation Plan in May 2017. Then in June, Kinder Morgan successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass legislation stripping local communities of any control over air quality as it pertains to zoning and the federal Clean Air Act. And now that the local Nashville government has been undercut at the state level, the air permit has been issued and construction is set to begin this fall.

Even though we were able to come together as a community, young and old, left and right, urban and rural, leveraging our elected representatives and successfully pulling the levers of functional democracy, the corruption of state-level government thwarted our efforts to protect the community and has left Nashville at the mercy of a corrupt state legislature, two lawsuits against us from Kinder Morgan (for not issuing them the required permits quickly enough), a 60,000 horsepower compressor with verifiable toxic emissions reigning down over playgrounds, schools and densely populated areas, and corroded and poorly maintained pipeline infrastructure laying across Tennessee creeks, ravines and waterways.

Perhaps the greatest outrage for me was the fact that it was revealed through state documents that after the flood of 2010, Kinder Morgan acknowledged that rushing waters had uncovered their pipelines and posed a substantial risk to the community in the form of a potential impact and explosion ½ mile in diameter. Five years later, the presence of exposed pipelines in Tennessee creeks showed that very little had been done to address the problem, and although we were successful in drawing PHMSA inspectors to our area from Atlanta, they ultimately failed to hold Kinder Morgan accountable for their negligent operation of corroded and poorly maintained pipelines in our community.

Even though five years had passed since the public safety risk had been officially acknowledged by Kinder Morgan in their own filings, the corroded and exposed condition of the pipelines failed to trigger enforcement action by the only agency with jurisdiction to hold Kinder Morgan accountable. The system has failed us. But we will continue to fight for our communities and our collective futures.

Severe Black Lung Disease Makes A Deadly Resurgence

lung with progressive massive fibrosis

By Dan Radmacher

“There is an epidemic here in Southwest Virginia, in Eastern Kentucky, in Southern West Virginia,” says Ron Carson, director of the Black Lung Program at Virginia’s Stone Mountain Health Services. “Miners are getting sicker and dying at a much younger age. A lot of people are going to be shocked when they see the numbers.”

Ron Carson

Ron Carson directs the Black Lung Program at Stone Mountain Health Services in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Stone Mountain Health Services


Carson has been working with researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to put hard numbers to this deadly resurgence, and he says they have been astounded by the number of cases Carson’s clinic is seeing of progressive massive fibrosis cases, the most serious form of black lung disease.

In a report from similar research released last December, NIOSH researchers found a cluster of 60 such cases from one Eastern Kentucky radiology practice over a nine-month period — three times the number of cases the national Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program found from 2011 to 2016.

Around the same time the NIOSH report was released, an NPR investigation by Howard Berkes aired that identified more than 1,000 cases of progressive massive fibrosis during the past decade — 10 times the number officially recognized by the federal government.

Complicated black lung is debilitating in the extreme, Carson says. “Some young miners come in to this clinic in wheelchairs because they don’t have enough breath to walk,” he says. “We have miners at age 28 with eight years of exposure to coal dust waiting for a lung transplant.”

Progressive massive fibrosis, like other forms of black lung disease, cannot be cured and is eventually fatal. Carson says the clinic focuses on easing the miners’ suffering. “We make every effort to give them a better quality of life,” he says. “Therapists do pulmonary rehab and work on patient education. They talk to them about winterizing their lungs — cold air has drastic effects on this condition.”

A basically normal human lung.

A basically normal human lung.

Jill Hutchison, the first director of the Black Lung Clinics Program in West Virginia and retired CEO of the West Virginia Primary Care Association, said the number of miners treated in West Virginia’s 18 black lung clinics increased by 26 percent last year.

“Black lung is not going away,” she says. “It is an ugly disease. It’s heart-breaking to watch a miner struggle just to breathe. The clinic’s helping black lung patients use medicine, dietary recommendations and exercise to improve their quality of life as much as possible.”

The cause of the resurgence, after the massive decline that followed passage of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969, isn’t clear, though there seems to be some consensus that it’s partially related to the thinner coal seams being mined these days in Appalachia.

A lung with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease.

A lung with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease.

“There’s less coal and more rock,” Hutchison says.

Carson agrees. “Some say all the easy coal is gone,” he says. “There’s a lot of rock and silicate now that you have to remove to get to the coal,” he says. “Another thought is that the longer working hours and the type of machinery that’s mining the coal produces much finer particles that respirators just don’t capture.”

Some wonder whether the decline of union mining is playing a role. Chuck Nelson, a retired miner with 30 years of experience, says the emphasis in non-union mines is on running coal, not worrying about coal dust or ventilation. “I know you heard how [non-union] Massey runs coal,” says Nelson, who worked for Massey for seven years. “It was so dusty, I couldn’t see. I had to turn the cap light off because all that dust just reflected light back in my eyes. That’s the way they mined coal after Massey dissolved the union.”

Carson acknowledged that the clinic sees a lot more non-union miners now, and said he has heard from miners that union mines did more to address dust retention. “I can only rely on what miners tell us,” he says. “There must be some validity to it because you hear it so often: We have regulations in place, but those regulations are not being enforced.”

A lung with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis and progressive massive fibrosis, also known as severe black lung disease. Photos courtesy of CDC-NIOSH

Alung with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis and progressive massive fibrosis, also known as severe black lung disease. Photos courtesy of CDC-NIOSH

Carson says miners have told him that more is done when federal or state mining inspectors are on the scene. “Miners will tell you that when they go in, they have three cuts to finish on their shift. They don’t have time to hang up the curtains to rechannel the air. But let a mining inspector come on board, and everything is all white from the lime used to keep the dust down. The water is on the sprinklers on the head of the cutting machine. But when the inspector leaves, it’s all back to normal. It’s all about production. That’s what miners tell us.”

In 2014, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration enacted tougher dust rules, lowering the concentrations of coal dust allowed in mines over the next several years. It will take time to see if those regulations are effective and enforceable — and if they will lower the incidence of black lung.

In the meantime, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, included amendments offered by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.V., that make it easier for coal miners to get black lung benefits — and to ensure their survivors continue to receive benefits after they die without having to prove their death was caused by black lung.


“The Byrd Amendments shifted the burden of proof from the miner,” Hutchison says. “Coal companies have to prove that mining didn’t cause the black lung. In the past, coal company lawyers could shop around and find doctors who would say miners were disabled, but not because of black lung.”

Jackson & Kelly, a prominent West Virginia law firm, came under scrutiny for withholding evidence of black lung in miners to help coal companies avoid paying for benefits. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation in 2013, the Center for Public Integrity found that Jackson & Kelly routinely employed such cutthroat tactics for decades.

Thanks to the Byrd Amendments, miners disabled by black lung only have to prove they have worked in the mines for 15 years to win benefits. Black lung advocates are concerned that the Byrd Amendments might become collateral damage in the Republican Obamacare repeal efforts, though many Republican lawmakers said they wanted to preserve those benefits regardless of Obamacare’s fate.

Miners walk to a mobile health screening unit operated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Photo courtesy of CDC-NIOSH

Miners walk to a mobile health screening unit operated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Photo courtesy of CDC-NIOSH


Advocates say it’s also important for Congress to increase funding for black lung clinics in light of the increasing numbers of severe black lung cases. “These clinics around the country are all funded by grants,” Carson says. “The funding has been level for the past five or six years. We’re finding bipartisan support for a funding increase.”

The Black Lung Benefits Reform Act of 1977 authorized up to $10 million for the Federal Black Lung Program, but actual funding has been less than that for years. In June, a group of Democratic Senators sent a letter to the heads of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education to request full funding.

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Cultivating Forest Medicinals, Creating Healthy Economy

women harvest black cohosh

By Eliza Laubach

Appalachia’s forests feature an especially concentrated diversity of medicinal plants. From the famous ginseng to lesser-known false unicorn, many of these plants are valued in today’s herbalism industry.

A traditional culture of harvesting plants like ginseng and ramps from the region’s expansive forests has long helped to sustain area families. Now, a movement called forest farming is emerging to grow these plants in private forestland to decrease strains on plant populations and strengthen the market for Appalachian botanicals.

Cultivators Coalesce

Shafts of afternoon sunlight dapple the forest floor. A path bordered by partly rotten branches angles across the slope. Just beyond are patches of black cohosh, ginseng, goldenseal and bloodroot. A high fence only 10 feet away marks the border with neighborhood backyards, built some years after the first ginseng was planted here 50 years ago.

Herb farmer Lorri Burra considers her land an apothecary. One of her customers is a company that makes homeopathic remedies from forest plants. Photo by Eliza Laubach.

Herb farmer Lorri Burra considers her land an apothecary. One of her customers is a company that makes homeopathic remedies from forest plants. Photo by Eliza Laubach.


This demonstration forest garden at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, N.C., is a learning tool for extension agents, graduate students and members of the WNC Medicinal Herb Growers Club. All work together to plant the seeds and track the health of Appalachian forest medicinal plants.

Lorri Burra, a member of the club, first planted ginseng on her land seven years ago in an old box spring frame. For two years, she saw nothing, so she stopped looking. Then last year, she saw the ginseng.

“The plants move around,” she says, “you can’t even weed.” Sure enough, a ginseng plant grows outside of the box.

Jeanine Davis, extension specialist and a teacher to Burra and many others, specializes in research and development for growing new crops, including medicinal forest plants. Many people in the forest farming field credit her as a mentor. Her most recent project involves serving as a partner on a regional, grant-funded coalition focused on providing resources, information and connection to forest farmers like Burra.

The Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmers Coalition is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and consists of 14 partners: universities, nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies and a regional extension program. Members include herbal medicine processors and growers.

The most commonly tended roots like ginseng and black cohosh need five to 10 years to reach medicinal potency. Disease, poaching and competition from native and invasive plants complicate this long harvest cycle.

“It takes a certain kind of person to grow herbs,” says Davis. “It’s not easy money.” Forest farmers must be willing to take a long-term financial risk, unlike digging wild ginseng, which can sell for $500 a pound to buyers who will mark it up even higher in Hong Kong.

Over-harvesting of the prized plant, which is reputed to benefit mental stimulation and long-term health, has caused extreme fragmentation and isolation of wild ginseng populations. This plight has encouraged forest farming, yet Davis also sees ginseng hunters’ attitudes dramatically changing as more people talk about conservation. “Now people are concerned, not clearing it all out,” she says. Still, there is a big slope to climb before people stop gathering wild ginseng.

Other plants are commonly misidentified as black cohosh, left. There are 23 temperate species in black cohosh’s genus, Actaea. Photo by Eliza Laubach

Other plants are commonly misidentified as black cohosh, left. There are 23 temperate species in black cohosh’s genus, Actaea. Photo by Eliza Laubach


Since ginseng’s fame makes farming it a delicate matter of great risk and high fences, many forest farming experts are shifting focus to growing black cohosh instead, whose root is widely used for women’s health. Actaea racemosa still crowns the understory of rich Appalachian woodland coves and is heavily dug in the fall harvest season. It has several lookalikes and is not always correctly identified when wild harvested.

Black cohosh often fetches a lower price than stinging nettle, according to Pennsylvania State University ethnobotanist and coalition partner Eric Burkhart. Even though nettle grows like a weed and black cohosh grows slow and finicky, overharvesting and a disconnect between wild harvesters and consumers lends it a low price. Burkhart does not want to see black cohosh populations become scarce like ginseng, and says this could happen within 100 years if people do not start cultivating it or better stewarding wild populations.

Greater connection between industry and academia and the current culture of wild harvesting is needed, says Burkhart, who desires to interface with root diggers in the woods. Many wild harvesters do not know their harvesting practices may be unsustainable long-term, nor that they could sell for a higher price if they were harvesting sustainably.

“If people are paid more, they will care more,” he says.

Recognizing that building these relationships will take time to build trust, Burkhart hopes to make the coalition’s workshops more accessible for rural Appalachian residents.

Marketing Quality Over Quantity

A paper Burkhart published in 2009 outlined the lack of profit in forest farming for anything but ginseng. Today he works with herbal medicine producers to strengthen their selling prices. “Most of these plants are highly undervalued in the marketplace,” he says.

Mountain Rose Herbs is changing that story. The large herbal supply company based in Oregon is buying ginseng and black cohosh from Forest Grown Certified farmers at a much higher price than the industry standard. The Forest Grown program, created by Pennsylvania Certified Organic three years ago, offers an organic certification with a new one that guarantees sustainable forest cultivation or wild harvesting standards.

women harvest black cohosh

Cynthia Taylor, pictured front, collaborated with Michelle Pridgen and Katie Trozzo to sell black cohosh to Mountain Rose Herbs. Last fall, they harvested 50 pounds. Photo by Priya Jaishanker.


Since beginning with ginseng, 10 more plants are now on the list for possible Forest Grown verification and 11 people have become certified, with five more expected by the end of this year.

United Plant Savers, an organization based in Southeast Ohio and focused on medicinal plant conservation, helped the program sprout by covering the certification costs for the first few farmers. The fees amount to just under $1,000: $750 for an organic certification and $200 for the Forest Grown title.

The investment is a barrier to small-scale farmers like Lorri Burra, who is already certified organic with Oregon Tilth and has considered — but cannot afford — the Forest Grown Certification. Still, she plans to plant two acres of black cohosh next spring in hopes of selling to a large processor for a higher price.

Tess Weigand coordinates the Forest Grown Verification program and prioritizes the program’s accessibility in the future. According to Weigand, they need to have enough people in the program to supply the processors, like Mountain Rose, who are selling Forest Grown Verified products. To reduce costs, Forest Grown is looking for other sponsors to continue the cost-share program and also considering a model that would allow a group of farmers to apply as a cooperative. The inspector would visit certain sites each year.

Two female farmers in Grayson County, Va., piloted the Forest Grown Certified program for black cohosh last season, an effort organized by coalition partners. Katie Trozzo has worked in the community for the past three years to help build this forest farming model, which has also served as research for her doctorate in agroforestry at Virginia Tech. She says creating mutual trust among forest farmers is vital for this type of industry where product quality is of utmost importance.

Through that, she met Michelle Pridgen, who sells vegetables and preserves at a farmers market and also owns forest land. Mountain Rose Herbs bought black cohosh from Pridgen’s and another forest farmer’s wild stands last year, which were replanted with a bud from each root dug, following the Forest Grown practices. Pridgen saw an 80 percent survival rate in those black cohosh populations this spring.

Processing facilities, like Mountain Rose Herbs, must also be certified. Weigand says two more regional herb processors will become certified by the end of 2017, part of a new project organized by Appalachian Sustainable Development at a local food storage warehouse in Duffield, Va.

Herb Hub Happenings

The freshly constructed Appalachian Harvest Herb Hub in Duffield will be used for the first time this fall by five growers processing black cohosh roots. A professional-grade central processing site for harvested herbs serves a great need for regional forest farmers, whose drying methods range widely and are often cumbersome and tedious.

Appalachian Sustainable Development, a nonprofit organization based in Southwest Virginia and an Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmers Coalition partner, collaborated with David Christie on the herb dryer design and outreach for the Duffield facility. This past year, the partnersip sought and educated farmers at presentations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and found funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the herb hub.

Christie farms herbs in Floyd, Va., and helped build a regional processing hub focused on Chinese medicinal plants in Floyd. He sees these facilities as a natural evolution as more people embrace herbs for healing.

digging black cohosh

Michelle Pridgen, above, dug black cohosh last fall. This autumn, she plans to harvest it again. Photo by Priya Jaishanker.


“Why not in the coal country?” says Christie, referring to the Appalachian Harvest Herb Hub, which borders coal mining regions. “Why not where people are looking for a different form of an economy?”

A year ago Christie started a consulting business, Taproot Botanical Alliance, to link small-scale farmers to the growing national herb industry. Being a small-scale herb farmer himself unable to make living wages, his mission is “to make sure farmers can thrive in this world.”

Michelle Pridgen is curious to see how it goes for the farmers using the herb hub in Duffield. She and the other farmer she worked with lost money last season with labor taken into account. So Eric Burkhart negotiated a higher selling price with Mountain Rose Herbs for growers this year, demonstrating the commitment across the board for creating economic benefit from cultivating forest medicinal plants. Now, with the new herb hub, Pridgen is renewing her certification and selling black cohosh again this fall.

Can forest farming also build community? As Pridgen notes, the potential economic opportunity may keep the younger generation in the county. According to Trozzo, more still needs to be figured out before it is economically viable, but with the coalition, she says, “I think we have the resources to see if we can get there.”

Learn to grow forest medicinals: 2017 Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmers Coalition trainings

  • Sept. 8-10 in Bloomingville, Ohio: Forest farming business
  • Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Swannanoa, N.C.: Forest farming intensive
  • Oct. 20-22 in Montreat, N.C.: Post-harvest handling, processing and production

See website for more info: appalachianforestfarmers.org/386-2

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