Posts Tagged ‘appalachia’

The will against poverty: ASU students serve in rural Appalachia

Friday, February 6th, 2015 - posted by jmcgirt
Appalachian State University students volunteering during the annual MLK Day Challenge.

Appalachian State University students volunteering during the annual MLK Day Challenge.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known for directly addressing the poverty he witnessed. In his last address before he was assassinated, he said “I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia … Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. ”

Jan. 19 marked the twentieth year since President Clinton passed legislation to encourage U.S. residents to volunteer on MLK Day. Rather than spending this holiday as a day off, many people gather in neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country for a “day on.” Universities are no exception.

Appalachian State University has celebrated with the MLK Challenge for sixteen years. Having participated in the challenge as a student, I couldn’t help but want to participate again. But I never knew I would serve by spelunking in a 79-year old woman’s crawlspace.

How does one get herself into a crawlspace in the first place? Dr. King has something to do with it: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” I suppose I can say I had the “resources,” though they are not what you are thinking. As for the will:

Anna Mae Shook of Zionville, N.C., applied to our High Country Home Energy Contest in November. She is spending close to 20 percent of her monthly income on her utility bill, which ranked her as one of our ten contest finalists. She was ecstatic to be considered. Yet, upon a walk-through assessment of her home, Appalachian Voices energy policy director, Rory McIlmoil, and Energy Contest business partners Sam Zimmerman and Sarah Grady of Sunny Day Homes found her home in disqualifying condition. She had a kerosene leak (which saturated her crawlspace), mold contamination and rotten flooring.

Despite not being eligible, the Energy Savings team felt we should help her in some way independent of the home energy makeover contest. I felt we could pull it off, and Sam Zimmerman, having assessed her home before, felt the same. Zimmerman wanted to donate his expertise but he expressed that we needed as many hands as possible. “Where are we going to find ten or so people to do this?”

Then it dawned on me — the ASU MLK Challenge would be equipping groups of ten students to perform service across the county in the coming week. In a matter of days, we made a plan to collect donations and muck-out the crawlspace with a team of students from ASU.

Appalachian State students serve at a local Watauga County resident’s home during the sixteenth annual MLK Day Challenge.

Appalachian State students serve at a local Watauga County resident’s home during the sixteenth annual MLK Day Challenge.

On Monday morning I met the group and saw that we were five short of the help we needed. Some were not dressed for getting dirty, much less for crawling under a house. Jim Street, a sixteen-year MLK Challenge alumni and their faculty service advisor for the day chuckled and said, “You should have seen those girls’ mouths drop when they heard ‘crawlspace’ and ‘spelunking.’” I just thought about the old MLK Challenge mantra, and retorted “It’s all a part of the challenge.”

By noon, we left town for Mrs. Shook’s house with a 12’x12’ piece of carpet from Abby Carpeting, safety equipment from Boone Area Missions, and promises of ply board and 2”x10’ boards from Watauga Building Supply, all of which were donated.

Seeing the crawlspace, the students were apprehensive. Who wouldn’t be when confronted with kerosene-saturated soil and mold in a tight, dark space? Some stayed outside, shuttling the contaminated soil to a dump trailer and others scrambled right in. Zimmerman and two students, Jelani Drew and Anne Carpenter, acted as the “miners,” digging out the kerosene-saturated soil. “Crawling in a crawlspace was not something I thought I was skilled at but it was not as scary as I thought,” said Carpenter.

By 4 p.m., we had removed the saturated soil, sprayed a bleach solution for mold, and spread a plastic liner to act as a moisture barrier, finishing our project in the crawlspace. Meanwhile Rory McIlmoil worked upstairs to repair Mrs. Shook’s floor for the rest of the evening. By the next weekend, he had re-floored the room and installed the donated carpet. Of course, the work would have been in vain had Mike Green, a local oil-monitor repairman, not stopped the kerosene leak for no charge.

Anne Carpenter (left) and Jelani Drew “spelunking” in Anna Mae Shook’s crawlspace. Photo by Jim Street

Anne Carpenter (left) and Jelani Drew “spelunking” in Anna Mae Shook’s crawlspace. Photo by Jim Street

Knowing that some of the students wanted to serve at the nursing home or the humane society, their service advisor Jim Street asked them if they felt their service site was a “winning ticket” after all, and to my surprise, they all felt so. Reflecting on the day of service, Carpenter noted, “We might not have been skilled but we brought a desire to serve an area that we really do impact with our choices — despite being in a campus bubble at times.” She felt our service was a great point of growth for everyone, including herself. “I’d go back under,” she said.

Mrs. Shook was extremely grateful and I was so glad the students had an opportunity to leave their campus bubble to serve in rural Appalachia for a day. I hope that they too now carry the mantra, “It’s all a part of the challenge.”

Obama budget creates opportunities for Appalachian communities

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
The Obama administration's budget includes several proposals that would create economic opportunities in central Appalachian communities struggling to weather coal's decline.

The Obama administration’s budget includes several proposals that would create economic opportunities in central Appalachian communities struggling to weather coal’s decline.

Central Appalachian communities weathering coal’s long decline would see a boost in funding under the White House budget released on Monday.

The Obama administration’s 2016 budget calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to be spent cleaning up abandoned strip mines, and to support economic development and workforce training in mining communities facing massive layoffs as coal is increasingly outcompeted in America’s energy mix. More than 13,000 coal jobs have been lost in central Appalachia since 2011.

One of the most significant proposals included in the budget is for an additional $200 million per year over the next five years for the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to restore dangerous unreclaimed mines. According to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which administers the program, additional funds would assist communities most severely impacted by coal “in a manner that facilitates economic revitalization on reclaimed lands and restored waterways.”

The program is funded through a combination of a per-ton tax on coal production and discretionary spending, but has consistently fallen short of its goals. More than $3 billion worth of high-priority sites remain unreclaimed — most of which are in central Appalachia. The Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands, for instance, lists $445 million worth of unfunded projects. Groups working in the region have called on the administration to reimagine the way funds are distributed through the program by coupling workforce development and environmental restoration.

Other funding increases called for in the president’s budget include $20 million for the Labor Department’s Dislocated Workers program to provide employment services and job training specifically for laid-off coal miners and power plant employees to help them transition to jobs in other fields. The Appalachian Regional Commission would see its $70 million budget grow by roughly one-third, with $25 million in new funding directed to communities “most impacted by coal economic transition” to support a range of economic development initiatives.

The need for job creation and economic diversification in Appalachia could not be clearer. As Congress debates the president’s budget and puts forward its own proposals in the coming months, we hope they will carefully consider ways to build a truly sustainable economy in the region.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay:

There’s a great deal the president must do to help build a robust clean energy economy and ensure that disproportionately impacted areas like Appalachia are not left behind. The Obama administration’s proposed budget shows that the White House understands the need for economic diversification in Appalachia. It shows that the calls of Appalachian communities for new opportunities have been heard.

Proposals are not actions, however, and the proposed budget may never become law. The good news is that not every action to diversify the Appalachian economy requires changes to the federal budget. We will continue to use every tool available to urge the White House to commit to turning the proposals in this budget into realities, regardless of the actions of Congress.

An interview with Christopher Scotton, author of “Secret Wisdom of the Earth”

Thursday, January 8th, 2015 - posted by brian
Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

By Brian Sewell

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” the debut novel by Christopher Scotton released this week, is a coming-of-age story that takes familiar themes — tragedy and the quest to find healing — and explores them with the backdrop of a Central Appalachian community beset by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Set in 1985 in the fictional Medgar, Ky., a richly conceived town full of even richer characters, “Secret Wisdom of the Earth” traces the summer 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly spent at his mother’s childhood home in the mountains, as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his younger brother.

With Kevin as the narrator, Scotton weaves together stories spanning generations of Medgar residents, close friends and unabashed enemies, including many who are struggling with questions of identity and whether or not to abide by the bounds of tradition.

Mountaintop removal, at first, is depicted as a pervasive but rarely-seen evil encroaching on Medgar, with a prideful, blustering coal baron acquiring more and more land surrounding the town. Ultimately, however, it’s the friction created in the small community by mountaintop removal that precipitates a spellbinding story of family, friendship and overcoming the odds that will change Kevin’s life and the town of Medgar forever.

Released on Jan. 6, the ambitious novel is popping up on lists of new and noteworthy titles and editor’s picks. On Jan. 11, Scotton will start a 15-date reading tour, stopping in many cities in Appalachia and across the Southeast.

After reading an early release of the novel, we spoke with Scotton about its heartrending themes, its Appalachian setting and his enduring relationship to the region.

Brian Sewell: You started working on the novel more than a decade ago. Looking back, can you talk about how you initially conceived of the story and went about shaping it into the novel we get to enjoy today?

Christopher Scotton: The kernel of the idea came to me when I was in my twenties. I met a friend’s mother, who was this beautiful women that had this intrinsic sadness about her. I don’t know if you’ve met people like that that have a facade of happiness, but in their unguarded moments you can see that there’s something not quite right. I asked my friend about it and he told me the story of how his older brother died. This was before he was born and his older brother was three and died in the most horrific accident in their front yard that you could possibly imagine, and 30 years later the mom who witnessed it still hadn’t healed. I was so absolutely aghast by that and I knew I had to write a novel about it; how could you ever possibly heal from that?

Now that I’ve become a parent many years later I can understand exactly why she would often look through me when I was talking to her at some place in the past. And now I know why, because you can’t fully heal from something like that. That spurred the idea in my head to write a novel about that awful tragedy and its effect on a family. I wanted to write a coming of age novel so I thought that having Kevin as the narrator, having him recover from that tragedy I figured would make a good story. A parent could never really recover, but maybe a sibling could.

The next question was setting. Do I locate it in the suburbs, where I grew up? When I was in my twenties, I was doing a lot of backpacking, camping and backcountry survival stuff with my college friends and I just fell in love with Appalachia. As I visited the region, I just fell in love with the people and the mountains. It’s such a beautiful place. I went down to eastern Kentucky and realized the paradox of that particular part of Appalachia and thought it would make a good backdrop for Kevin’s story.

I really didn’t connect mountaintop removal to it right away. I had started writing a story centered in eastern Kentucky. The tragedy was there, I had developed the characters, but I hit a narrative logjam and nothing was connecting. I went down to eastern Kentucky for research again and saw my first mountaintop removal mine and could not believe that this practice was allowed to go on. Once I saw that, it all clicked in; the permanent loss of the mountains in eastern Kentucky became so obviously allegorical to the loss that the main characters feel. Once I connected those two together, the rest of the story flowed so easily.

BS: Tell us about some of the other characters such as Kevin’s grandfather Pops that we really get to know. Did they emanate from the setting itself or personal experiences?

CS: I spent a lot of time in eastern Kentucky just meeting folks and listening to their stories and getting to know them. In small towns throughout Appalachia, you just meet wonderful, quirky, interesting people who you want to write about because they’re so real and interesting. You also meet some awful people, just like everywhere else. You meet wonderful people and awful people in New York City too. There are pockets of beauty and pockets of evil absolutely everywhere. A lot of the town characters that I wrote about are just folks that I observed and met while in Kentucky.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

I didn’t have a grandfather like Pops in my life when I was an adolescent. Pops is the grandfather I wish I had and the grandfather that I hope to become; a kind of amalgamation of those two people. Everyone needs a wise mentor in their life and I didn’t have one growing up. Kevin certainly requires it given the tragedy he’s gone through. Adolescence is hard enough, even in the best of circumstances. But when you’ve gone through something like he’s gone through and layer on the guilt from his father, you need someone who can ground you, and Pops definitely does that for him.

BS: Characters like Pops challenge the simplistic images of Appalachian prevalent in media and pop culture. Could you remark on the different brands of wisdom found in the book?

CS: You could argue that in the novel there are several stereotypical characters; Paul is a gay hairdresser and you can’t get much more stereotypical than that. But the reality is that there are elements of truth in stereotypes and you see that everywhere. One thing that my trips down to eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia really taught me is that, sure, there are stereotypical folks in that region but there are many folks that don’t fit that mold and they’re probably there in equal measure. There is wisdom in both.

Pops is someone who loves the land and has the capacity to listen to the earth. He goes off by himself into the woods and just is, existing in the woods by himself. At times in my life when I have done that, when I’m off camping by myself for a few days, I listen to the earth and appreciate the earth in ways that you can’t from an office or even camping with friends. You gain so much wisdom and appreciation for how complex and interconnected the earth is when you do that.

The people in Appalachia tend to be rich just in and of itself. If a capable writer can create good characters, they can do that in any setting and any plot. Appalachia gave me great material to work with and I’m very thankful for that.

BS: You introduce mountaintop removal from an almost innocent perspective. From Kevin’s perspective it’s this off-in-the-distance, over-a-couple-of-ridgelines thing going on. But as you get deeper into the book and Kevin grows into the community, you get closer and closer to the destruction.

CS: Kevin’s experience with mountaintop removal is very similar to mine. I visited the region, eastern Kentucky specifically, three or four times before I had seen a mountaintop removal mine. I had been camping and backpacking extensively but never come across it. You really don’t see it until you get off-trail. I had no sense of what was going on.

I was down in Williamson, W.Va., and heard an explosion and asked someone what’s going on and they described the blasting. That Sunday, I snuck through a fence and climbed through the woods and came to the edge of the operation and looked over two miles of moonscape. It disgusted me. So Kevin’s experience was very much my experience.

BS: Something the novel does well, considering when it takes place, is looking at mountaintop removal as a human issue and a little-understood emerging threat that’s dividing the communities where it’s taking place.

CS: After I saw the mountaintop removal mine, I probably asked someone, “Do you have any idea what they’re doing up there?” But you talk to someone whose family member works up there, they have a very different perspective. I was struck by how it divided the folks that I talked to. I thought that was a really sad and interesting aspect of it. Those that live near it and have the put up with the devastation often hate it, but some of them have relatives that work in the mines so it really is a sad paradox.

Now the pendulum has swung to where, in towns beset by large mining operations, there seems to be a majority of folks that really don’t want it there. It’s gotten so far out of control and the damage is so well documented by organizations like yours. Certainly in 1985, when the novel takes place, and even in 2000, when I was doing the bulk of the mountaintop removal site work, there was less understanding of the damage.

BS: What’s your relationship to the region after writing “Secret Wisdom of the Earth?”

CS: Calling it a second home wouldn’t be accurate because I don’t visit as much as I would like. But I feel a kinship with eastern Kentucky and with the people there because, without their help and support and endorsement, I couldn’t have created this world in my head to tell Kevin’s story. I feel a tremendous connection to that region and the people. I’m so looking forward to spending time in the region and getting to know it again.

BS: You’re heading back to the region to do a reading soon. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers in Appalachia?

CS: A lady from a major coal-mining county in Kentucky who told me, “You did this region proud.” That was the best praise I think I’ve gotten — from someone who is from the area and felt I did the region justice, dealing with the region with humanity and with truth.

Fighting Mountaintop Removal During the Obama Years

Friday, December 26th, 2014 - posted by molly

Appalachia’s Health Checkup

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

Region faces escalating medical need, responds with community-based initiatives

By Molly Moore

Some days people meet The Health Wagon at the Lee County airport in southwest Virginia. Other days, it’s the community center in Dickenson County, or a local church. No matter where the mobile clinic vehicle pulls up, local residents step into a small waiting area, where they are greeted by a local volunteer before heading to one of the clinic’s two exam rooms to meet with a nurse-practitioner for a donation-based or free medical appointment.

Nearly 25 years after Sister Bernie Kenny first traveled the mountain roads in a Volkswagen Beetle bringing healthcare to those in need, her ministry has grown into a full-fledged southwest Virginia nonprofit organization with two stationary facilities and two mobile units.

volunteer2

Volunteers facilitate a vision test at a health fair in Wise, Va., organized by The Health Wagon. Nearly all patients at the free healthcare clinics hosted by the aid organization Remote Area Medical are in need of dental and vision care, says founder Stan Brock. Photo courtesy The Health Wagon

Today The Health Wagon is run by Dr. Teresa Gardner, a family nurse practitioner. She began working alongside Sister Kenny in 1993 and speaks about the region’s health needs with genuine passion and determination.

“I have never seen the need more dire in my 22 years that I have been here,” Gardner says. “The need is phenomenal. We have patients on a waiting list.”

In 2013, The Health Wagon saw 4,167 separate patients and provided $2.2. million in free medical care. The patients visiting The Health Wagon are likely at risk for the same ailments that saddle the region as a whole. Appalachians are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and specific cancers such as lung, colorectal and cervical, according to “Appalachian Health and Well-being,” published in 2012. Kidney disease, mental and oral health, traumatic injuries and substance abuse are also regional concerns.

Dr. Joseph Smiddy, medical director at both the Health Wagon in southwest Virginia as well as Body and Soul Ministries in Belize, says more people in the region are falling out of the healthcare system now than when he began charity work 15 years ago. In his experience, cancers are now being diagnosed later in life than they were several years ago, and dental work is now more expensive relative to the economy. People are not receiving mental health or preventative care, he says, and epidemics of lung disease, diabetes and obesity are worsening.

Learn More

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation publishes annual county-level information about health outcomes and factors that influence health. Explore data about your area at countyhealthrankings.org.

The gap in healthcare coverage is evident at free clinic events that nonprofit organization Remote Area Medical hosts across the country, as hundreds of people wait in line overnight to receive medical care the following day.

Remote Area Medical, based in Rockford, Tenn., formed in 1985 to deliver airborne medical care in developing nations, but began operating in the United States in the early ‘90s. The organization has since hosted 742 events in 11 states. The nation’s largest annual event is held in partnership with The Health Wagon in Wise County, Va. At the RAM clinics, volunteers set up scores of dental chairs and examination facilities, and doctors arrive to donate their services. Some bring their own equipment too; Smiddy arrives with a 70-foot tractor-trailer rigged with two digital X-ray machines.

Most patients who make the early-morning journey to the temporary health clinics are motivated by a pressing need to see the dentist or eye doctor, but while waiting in line they are encouraged to also visit other medical specialists at the event. Through these visits, RAM providers have identified thousands of cases of previously undiagnosed diabetes, hypertension and cancer.
Similarly, every visitor to The Health Wagon is screened for diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary artery disease. The organization also hosts regularly scheduled sessions to address specific issues, such as respiratory disease, wound care and endocrinology — sometimes in collaboration with specialists from the University of Virginia, who provide care remotely via sophisticated, secure video technology.

hw2

A new mobile health unit recently replaced an aging vehicle that had become unsafe to drive. Mobile units allow The Health Wagon to reach patients in remote areas, and also provide low-cost facilities that help keep overhead costs low. Photo courtesy The Health Wagon

Gardner is frank about the Health Wagon’s financial limitations. The economic struggles in southwestern Virginia mean there is extraordinarily high demand for the organization’s services at a time when resources are especially tight. The nonprofit’s capacity is also taxed by the addition of new services such as monthly screenings in Wise to help diagnose cervical cancer and other women’s health issues. Despite this, she says, “We have to do something for these patients because there are patients that are dying here without care.”

Steps Toward Transformation

Margaret Tomann, program manager at the Healthy Appalachia Institute — a collaborative effort at University of Virginia’s College at Wise — acknowledges the need in the region but believes it’s just as important to recognize local examples of success. Indeed, the Healthy Appalachia Institute’s stated goal is “to transform Central Appalachia into a leading model for rural community health throughout the world.”

That transformation can take place on a local level, says Dr. Sue Cantrell, director and acting director of Virginia’s LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau Health Districts. Social and environmental factors such as neighborhood crime and the ability to commute on safe roads are inextricably linked to health outcomes, she notes. For example, obesity leads to a host of health problems, but more kids will walk to school if sidewalks are available and the community is safe.

By examining barriers to positive health choices, these circumstances can be addressed, piece by piece. To encourage morning and early-evening walkers, a greenway trail system in Big Stone Gap now sports solar-powered lights, and Pennington Gap in Lee County, Va., recently received funding to install exercise stations along their walking trails. In addition to countering obesity and heart disease, establishing an active routine can also help people break the cycle of substance abuse.

This holistic approach is being employed across the region. In eight western North Carolina counties, an initiative called MountainWise is surveying the health impacts of a vast suite of community policies — such as transportation and park plans — in an effort to integrate health goals into county and town development.

The ambitious undertaking is the first of its kind in the United States, according to MountainWise, a project of the North Carolina Community Transformation Grant Project and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results of the assessments will be used to facilitate access to healthy food, provide opportunities for physical activity and support tobacco-free areas.

Improvements in physical activity and nutrition are most achievable when there is a solid foundation of education and economic security, says Cantrell. Someone juggling multiple jobs is less likely to have the time and energy for physical activity, she says, and people who succeed in school are more likely to have health insurance — and are better positioned to navigate the healthcare system.

At the Healthy Appalachia Institute, Tomman adopts a like-minded view. After noticing similar patterns of poor health indicators in counties in East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the Healthy Appalachia Institute hosted an event to build cross-state, regional awareness of the issue. Attendees included leaders in health, economic development and education, fields that Tomman says “are so closely intertwined you can’t really do one without the other.”

In one Virginia initiative, more than 20 regional collaborators are creating an outdoor recreation plan called “Health is Right Outside” that combines health and economic goals. The beauty of the Appalachian Mountains offers tourism and economic development opportunities, and Cantrell hopes that efforts to market area trails and rivers to visitors will also entice locals to nearby outdoor activities. “There’s a lot here that the average person living in this area can benefit from and enjoy,” she says.

Cantrell reflects that some actions to improve health must be taken on an individual level, but other changes, such as improving the high school graduation rate or building a trail network, can be accomplished together. “We can do it as a community and impact more people, and potentially their children and grandchildren.”

What will Obama’s legacy be on mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 - posted by thom
After six years of the Obama presidency, mountaintop removal is still putting communities are at risk, leading many to wonder what his environmental legacy will be.

After six years of the Obama presidency, mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk, leading many to wonder what his legacy on the issue will be.

The Obama administration has taken steps to limit mountaintop removal coal mining pollution in Appalachia. The president and agency officials have also made quite a few promises. But mountaintop removal continues, so what have they actually done?

The Alliance for Appalachia, a coalition of groups including Appalachian Voices, just released a Grassroots Progress Report examining the administration’s successes and shortfalls in dealing with mountaintop removal. There have been successes, to be sure, but as the report clearly demonstrates, there have been many failures.

Large scale surface coal mining is still a huge problem in Central Appalachia. Although the pace has slowed due to the declining coal economy, many new permits are issued every year. In 2013 Virginia issued 9 new surface mining permits and 2 acreage expansions, West Virginia issued 25 new permits, and Kentucky issued 30. Only Tennessee issued no new permits. - Grassroots Progress Report

The report covers not only the scale of ongoing mining, but paints a clear picture of the costs that mountaintop removal continues to have on Appalachian communities. The poor economic outcomes and human health problems associated with mountaintop removal have not improved over the past six years. These issues are closely linked, and neither can improve without action from the White House.

The White House has already made commitments. A 2009 Memorandum of Understanding, signed by all of the relevant regulatory agencies, outlined a series of actions the administration was prepared to take to deal with mountaintop removal. The Alliance report goes through those commitments one by one, pointing out the shortcomings of the actions taken, and the failure of the administration to take further, stronger actions.

The report is not simply a list of grievances, however. There are four policy recommendations as well.

1) a Selenium Standard to ensure that citizens maintain the ability to test for selenium pollution in their own water,
2) a strong Conductivity Rule based on scientific research US EPA has already conducted because we, and our federal agencies, know that high conductivity can be a key measure of dangerous water,
3) a Stream Protection Rule that preserves a strong stream buffer zone requirement so that mining waste can no longer be dumped into our streams, and
4) a strong Minefill Rule to address the currently unregulated dumping of coal burning waste into abandoned mine sites.

If you’re interested in what the Obama administration has and has not done in dealing with mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, take a moment to read the one-page summary or the full report.

From Southwest Virginia, a path for less pollution

Friday, November 21st, 2014 - posted by cat

{ Editor’s Note }Today’s guest to the Front Porch is Kathy Selvage, a coal miner’s daughter in Southwest Virginia who has been a tireless advocate for environmental and social justice in the region. Kathy serves on the Applachian Voices Board of Directors. This essay originally appeared as an op-ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

kathy

The Environmental Protection Agency recently rolled out its Clean Power Plan, seeking to set limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants — an issue that affects us all. The plan will be finalized next year, leaving ample time for the nation to weigh in.

Many of us in Wise County live in the shadows of two coal-fired power plants — Appalachian Power Company’s plant near Carbo, right on the Clinch River, and one in St. Paul, owned by Dominion Virginia Power. Both plants emit pollution that affects the quality of air that our families, our children and our elderly breathe.

We are Appalachians and both our terrain and our people are among the most unique but under-appreciated on earth. We have powered this nation and driven its industrial development, but we have also sacrificed tremendously for the lights, warmth and comfort of this country, including our own shortened lives.

Carbon and other pollution released by burning coal threaten public health. They lead to higher risks of asthma attacks, premature deaths and thousands of hours of missed work, lessening our economic activity. On the other hand, setting carbon pollution standards is essential for keeping our air more pure, thus protecting public health.

With great challenges come great opportunities. What we’ve learned is that we don’t have to give up good public health to have a strong economy. We deserve, and can have, both.

We can increase our economic activity through investments in clean energy — conservation, energy efficiency, solar and wind. Carbon emissions in the U.S. have decreased in the past decade. We should use this momentum to forge ahead in a field ripe with more innovation to be created and applied.

Conservation is not to be disdained. It is an admirable principle that should be at the forefront of energy evolution. Additionally, energy efficiency measures — using less energy but yielding the same level of power — are the most cost-effective way for Virginians to meet a growing demand. Besides sharing the benefits of conservation, these measures offer the added benefit of creating local jobs.

According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, by 2020 the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution limits could create more than 5,600 new jobs, recirculate money within local communities and add $517 million to the pockets of Virginians through savings.

Solar is another job creator, if only we embrace it. Our closest neighboring states are outdoing us in installing solar projects, but we can seize the opportunity to grow that sector, be more competitive, reduce our carbon load and be healthier.

Offshore wind in Virginia is yet another capacity for energy generation that represents great potential. Both wind and solar are far more abundant than other fuel sources and can provide us with clean energy, pollution-free.

We can meet our energy needs without expanding nuclear or over-expanding the use of natural gas. While gas burns cleaner than coal, its use also contributes to climate change, and its extraction can pose serious risks to our health and our water. Far Southwest Virginia already has 8,000 gas wells, mostly in the coal-producing counties, with grossly inadequate oversight.

As citizens of Virginia, surely we are committed to healthy people and a vibrant economy for all, including the far southwestern corner. In recognition of the many sacrifices made by the region, elected representatives should embrace, endorse and advocate for special economic development considerations for Southwest Virginia. This vision should be geared to preventing the “brain drain” responsible for at least part of the declining population here.

And let any investments in our economic development be overseen by a group with a new and different vision, not one that is no longer viable. In times past, we have diversified with seemingly no transparency. This time we must build accountability, audits and tracking of the long-term viability of jobs with complete transparency to the general public. We must begin to rebuild sorely needed public trust.

We can do this! Our air must be cleaner to safeguard our health. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan is a giant leap forward. I wholeheartedly support it and encourage others to as well. The plan will help motivate us to find alternate ways to produce all the kilowatts we need, being mindful of those in far Southwest who have sacrificed tremendously for our energy needs. The underappreciated deserve a brighter, healthier day.

Kathy Selvage is the daughter of a coal miner with lifelong residency in a coal-mining community. She sits on the board of Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization whose mission is to unite people in the protection of the land, air and water of central and southern Appalachia.

Be cool and keep fighting

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - posted by thom
After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have a hard time turning on the TV or going online without seeing reactions to the midterm elections. Most pundits will analyze what happened, and some will try to tell you what it means.

Here’s what it really means: maybe not that much.

To put things in historical perspective, let’s take a moment to look back at some very recent elections and their outcomes.

2008: Democrats take the White House and a supermajority in both the House and Senate! They proceed to pass climate legislation, stop mountaintop removal coal mining, usher in a new age of clean energy take a few moderate steps toward reducing the amount of permits issued for mountaintop removal coal mining.

2010: Republican wave! The GOP takes the House by a wide margin and nearly takes the Senate. They proceed to remove EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and then expedite all mountaintop removal permits create a fuss while federal agencies continue to take moderate steps towards limiting coal pollution.

2012: Democrats keep the White House, and improve their numbers in both the House and Senate! They proceed to make permanent changes to coal mining and coal ash regulations while stopping global warming in its tracks make no headway on coal mining regulations, allow mountaintop removal mines to be permitted, and take only moderate steps on coal ash regulation and carbon emissions.

We don’t know what the future holds, but considering what happened yesterday there are a few things that we can be pretty sure of moving forward.

The politics of Virginia and Tennessee are not much different today than they were yesterday. No major incumbent lost their race, and the election’s outcomes gives us no reason to believe federal office holders from either state will change their behavior going forward. Appalachian Voices, for one, is happy to continue to work with members from both states and both parties.

West Virginia and Kentucky are still in Big Coal’s stranglehold. But like coal itself, the industry’s power is finite. We can’t say how soon the politics of coal will change in Central Appalachia, but we will continue to work with our allies in those states to change the conversation. For now, members of the two states’ delegations will continue to vote the way they have for years.

After 30 years as an advocate for coal miners and the coal industry alike, Rep. Nick Rahall lost to his Republican challenger, Evan Jenkins, in the race for West Virginia’s 3rd district. Rahall was the senior Democratic member and had a firm grasp on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. His replacement in that role will likely be someone who opposes mountaintop removal coal mining. For that, we can be all be happy.

North Carolina’s Senate election was a bit of a surprise. Though, aside from Democrat Kay Hagan being replaced by Thom Tillis, the rest of delegation is unchanged.

Appalachian Voices has worked hard to build relationships with members of Congress and their staffs in both the House and the Senate. But we have known for a long time that getting comprehensive legislation through Congress is not a good short-term goal.

The White House, on the other hand, is armed with the science and has the legal authority and moral obligation to take on mountaintop removal, coal ash pollution, climate change and other threats. President Obama was never going to be able to rely on Congress to act on those issues. So from that perspective, nothing has changed.

It’s okay to be excited about a candidate you like winning an election. It’s okay to be bummed when a candidate you like loses. But it’s not okay to get so caught up in it all that you forget the big picture.

As we see it, the job before us has not changed. Our responsibilities to Appalachia, and yours, are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

We will keep fighting for a better future for Appalachia, and push every decision-maker, regardless of their political leanings, to stand with us. We will fight to end to mountaintop removal and for a just economic transition away from fossil fuels. We will fight because no one else is going to do it for us, and we will need you there by our side.

A Washington Post editorial on mountaintop removal’s dirty consequences

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 - posted by thom
The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

Today, the editorial board of The Washington Post published a strongly worded condemnation of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The piece begins with what we all know:

“For decades, coal companies have been removing mountain peaks to haul away coal lying just underneath. More recently, scientists and regulators have been developing a clearer understanding of the environmental consequences. They aren’t pretty.”

As evidence, the editorial highlights two recent studies that we’ve also covered here. First, the U.S. Geological Survey’s findings that pollution from mountaintop removal is devastating fish populations in Appalachian streams. We summed up that research on this blog in July:

Over the summer, a U.S. Geological Survey study compared streams near mountaintop removal operations to streams farther away. In what should be “a global hotspot for fish biodiversity,” according to Nathaniel Hitt, one of the authors, the researchers found decimated fish populations, with untold consequences for downstream river systems. The scientists noted changes in stream chemistry: Salts from the disturbed earth appear to have dissolved in the water, which may well have disrupted the food chain.

The second study the editorial points to is new research out of West Virginia University that found dust pollution from mountaintop removal promotes lung cancer. We wrote last week:

The Charleston Gazette reported on a new study finding that dust from mountaintop removal mining appears to contribute to greater risk of lung cancer. West Virginia University researchers took dust samples from several towns near mountaintop removal sites and tested them on lung cells, which changed for the worse. The findings fit into a larger, hazardous picture: People living near these sites experience higher rates of cancer and birth defects.

We’re glad one of the largest newspapers in the country is paying attention, even when many policymakers are not. The editorial does, however, give a bit too much credit to the Obama administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their actions to reduce the environmental and human toll of mountaintop removal. Actions have been taken, certainly, but mountaintop removal is still happening in Appalachia.

With the mounting scientific evidence that mining pollution is decimating fish populations, causing air and water pollution, wiping out trees and mountains, and promoting a host of human health problems, there is no excuse for the Obama administration to allow mountaintop removal to continue.

Take a moment to let the president know that Appalachian communities are still being put at risk.

Mountaintop removal promotes lung cancer

Friday, October 17th, 2014 - posted by thom

A map from The Human Cost of Coal showing the above-average number of lung cancer deaths per 100,000 people in Central Appalachian Counties.

The body of research linking mountaintop removal mining to lung cancer just got a whole lot stronger.

Using dust samples collected in communities near mountaintop removal mines, a new study conducted by Dr. Sudjit Luanpitpong and other West Virginia University researchers found a direct link between air pollution and tumor growth.

From Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette:

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Six years ago, researchers found a close correlation between living in proximity of mountaintop removal coal mining sites and lung cancer mortality rates, even after adjusting for factors like smoking, poverty, race, etc. That 2008 study is just one of more than 20 studies linking mountaintop removal to health issues in neighboring communities.

While people in Appalachia have been aware of this strong correlation, this new study linking dust from mountaintop removal sites directly to the growth of lung cancer cells is the first of its kind.

“To me, this is one of the most important papers that we’ve done,” said [Dr. Michael Hendryx], a co-author of the new paper. “There hasn’t been a direct link between environmental data and human data until this study.”

Hendryx said, “The larger implication is that we have evidence of environmental conditions in mining communities that promote human lung cancer. Previous studies … have been criticized for being only correlational studies of illness in mining communities, and with this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”

The coal industry and its allies in Congress have always been eager to dismiss claims that air and water pollution caused by mountaintop removal mining have any link to the high rates of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects, or the decrease in life expectancy that counties with heavy mining have experienced over the past two decades.

Will this study get them to finally change their tune? It’s almost certain it won’t. It will be up to those of us who care about the health of Appalachian communities to raise our voices and simply drown them out.

Click here to learn more about how mountaintop removal impacts health in Appalachia, or visit The Human Cost of Coal on iLoveMountains.org.