Posts Tagged ‘appalachia’

Carl Shoupe: Seeing through the “War on Coal” smokescreen

Thursday, August 21st, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Carl Shoupe, the author of this piece, which originally appeared on The Hill, is an active member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and lives in Harlan County, Ky. We’re sharing Carl’s thoughts here with his permission.

Carl Shoupe speaks at a KFTC press conference held as a ” Declaration of Grievances” towards the inaction of the Kentucky state legislature. Photo from Flickr.com.

As a retired coal miner, the son of a coal miner, and the father of a coal miner, I’m curious about Congress’ recent attacks on the EPA and claims of a “war on coal.” These claims are nothing but a distraction from the real needs of coalfield communities.

I live in Harlan County, Kentucky in the very heart of the Appalachian coalfields, and with the exception of a couple years in Vietnam as a United States Marine, I have lived here all my life.

I’m working every day – along with thousands of other Kentuckians – to build a better future here in Eastern Kentucky and across Appalachia so that my grandchildren and their children can make a life here. We believe we can have a bright future here with more and better jobs, safe and affordable energy, healthy communities, and opportunities for our kids.

Of course, we know it won’t be easy. It will take hard work, creativity, and investment in new ideas and real solutions. More than anything, it will require honest leadership with vision and courage.

That’s why this Congress’ misguided attacks are such a disappointment. The war on coal is nothing more than a smokescreen designed to keep us from seeing the true challenges and real opportunities in communities like mine.

You see, the coal industry has been leaving Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky for decades. In 1980 there were more than 34,000 coal miners working in Eastern Kentucky. By 1990, that number was down to 25,000 despite a production peak. Fewer than 8,000 jobs remain today — the lowest since 1927 — and continue to fall.

For years, industry analysts, coal company executives, and energy agencies warned that our best and easiest coal has been mined, that transportation costs have been rising, that cleaner and cheaper alternatives to coal were on the rise.

It has been clear that we needed to be building a new economy here in the coalfields for generations, yet our political leaders have done little or nothing to help us prepare for the inevitable transition.

If Congress really wants to help the coal miner, there are several ways to start. First, Congress should pass the mine safety reforms we’ve been waiting for since the Upper Big Branch explosion killed 29 fellow miners in 2010. Congress should help ensure coal miners don’t get black lung – a vicious and entirely preventable workplace disease that is increasing instead of disappearing. Congress should also make sure that a miner’s hard earned pension is secure, not stolen by some corporate shell game.

Congress should remember that every coal miner is more than just his job. He – or she – is also a son or daughter, a parent, a spouse. When he’s not underground 60 or 70 hours a week, he is a member of his church, his local PTA or volunteer fire department; he might be a Little League coach.

If Congress really cares about coal miners and coal families, then it should work to give them a future.

For instance, Congress could generate thousands of new jobs in the coalfields by creating a revolving fund for energy efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses, and pass the Shaheen-Portman bill to create thousands of energy efficiency jobs.

We like to say that if you give a coal miner a coat hanger and some electrical tape, he can fix anything. Congress could release the millions of dollars sitting in the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund and employ thousands of laid-off coal miners to restore our land, forests, and water. Congress could locate one of those fancy new manufacturing innovation centers the president talks about right here in the mountains.

Instead of raging about a made-up war on coal and how to protect coal corporations, Congress should take a closer look at how to really support coal communities.

Over the past century, Harlan County has shipped over one billion tons of coal to steel mills and power plants across this country. In a district represented by some of the most powerful politicians in Washington D.C., one-third of our children live in poverty and we rank 435th in combined quality of life indicators.

It’s time to try something new. We can have a bright future here in the coalfields of Kentucky and Appalachia. Our people are hungry for honest and courageous leaders who will help us build it.

It’s still happening …

Friday, August 15th, 2014 - posted by thom
Click to enlarge. Photo by Lynn Willis; Flight by Southwings

Click to enlarge. Photo by Lynn Willis; Flight by Southwings

Surface coal mining has been going on in Appalachia for a long time. If you live in the part of central Appalachia that produces coal, it probably feels like it’s been going on forever. The regulations have been modified a few times, the markets have had their ups and downs, and some of the names of the coal companies are different than they used to be.

Aside from that, not much has changed.

In 2009, there was a great deal of excitement about early conversations with Obama administration officials. The previous eight years had been a nightmare for Appalachian community groups fighting against mountaintop removal coal mining. Finally, there were people in the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior who seemed eager to hear from communities and make some real changes. Yet, five years later, mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening in Appalachia.

A few weeks ago, Southwings took my colleague Amy Adams and photographer Lynn Willis on a flight over mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia. The images are hard to look at, not because they show anything new, but precisely because they are more of the same. Mountains continue to be deforested, blasted apart, and dumped into nearby valleys and streams.

I always find it interesting to hear from folks in our movement describe what it was that motivated them to become active in fighting against mountaintop removal mining. There are all sort of answers, including: “It was happening in my backyard,” and “I heard a presentation from impacted Appalachian residents.” For me, it was a mix of things, starting with meeting some residents of eastern Kentucky.

This image, however, is what made it all click in my mind.
5000sq miles of WV

That’s a Google Earth satellite image of approximately 5,000 square miles of central Appalachia (roughly the size of Connecticut). Notice those grey splotches. Those pock marks. Those coal tattoos. Each of those giant marks on the earth is a mountaintop removal coal mine.

The scale and pervasiveness of the destruction is almost impossible to comprehend. The satellite image is evidence of an ongoing crime against nature that regulators and policy makers are astonishingly allowing to continue.

Understanding the extent of the mining is an important step to understanding the connection between mining pollution and the Appalachian health crisis occurring across 50 counties. Blowing up more than 500 mountains, burying more than 2,000 miles of streams, and desecrating over 1 million acres of land cannot be done without polluting the air and water necessary to human health. That’s why there’s a close link between mountaintop removal mining and elevated rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and birth defects throughout the entire region.

Yet, mountaintop removal is still happening.

Appalachians are not going to give up, and neither is Appalachian Voices. Federal agencies can still take major steps to ending mountaintop removal, and we all need to do what we can to make sure they do.

>> Learn more about mountaintop removal mining.

Today, Congress has to learn about mountaintop removal

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - posted by thom
Appalachian Voices' program director Matt Wasson has been invited to testify on Capitol Hill today.

Appalachian Voices’ program director Matt Wasson has been invited to testify on Capitol Hill today.

Appalachian Voices’ program director Matt Wasson is testifying before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Environment and the Economy today. The hearing, with the crowd-grabbing title, “Modernizing the Business of Environmental Regulation and Protection,” includes a fascinating group of witnesses.

State regulators from Arizona, Arkansas, and Massachusetts will inform the subcommittee about state efforts to incorporate technology in their environmental regulatory endeavors to be more efficient and improve transparency. Bill Kovacs, from the pro-business, anti-regulation group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will speak about the problems of red tape and slow permitting. Our friend and ally, Scott Slesinger, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, will also be testifying, fortunately, and will speak about the importance of technology to providing improved environmental outcomes.

Matt will take this opportunity to talk about mountaintop removal coal mining, coal ash, and the failure of regulators to stop the ongoing crisis in Appalachia.

CDC_Cancer_Set2

Appalachian Voices has been using technology to improve citizen involvement in environmental regulation and policy-making for years. Among many examples, we introduced the Human Cost of Coal, an interactive map emphasizing the correlations between mountaintop removal mining and health and socioeconomic problems in Appalachia

It’s important that Congress not look at technology purely from the standpoint of improved “customer service” for industry. Cutting red tape is important, and providing transparency and clarity for companies is essential to a properly running economy.

But just as important to the economy is real enforcement of environmental laws. From Matt’s written testimony: (His shorter oral testimony can be found here.)

“We caution, however, that an approach that focuses on streamlining environmental permitting at the expense of protecting human health and natural resources would not only risk failure of the very mandate that our regulatory agencies were created to fulfill, but would be economically short-sighted as well. For instance, a few weeks ago, researchers at the US Geologic Survey published a study that found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. This, combined with the fact that the sportfishing industry creates far more jobs than surface coal mining in all states where mountaintop removal occurs, demonstrates how allowing continued degradation of water quality in order to simplify permitting for coal companies is the very definition of “penny wise and pound foolish.”

The House of Representatives has made clear over the past few years that members prefer not to talk about mountaintop removal coal mining. They would rather just lambast the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama administration for any actions they take to protect the Appalachian people from the ongoing pollution that is destroying forests, streams, mountains and communities.

But today, Appalachian Voices is testifying before Congress. And that means, whether members like it or not, they are going to have to hear about the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Today’s court decision and what it means for Appalachia

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by thom

good_day_for_mtns2

Today was a big day for those fighting to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

A federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge.

Read a statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

In 2009, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers began an Enhanced Coordination Process for permitting valley fills associated with large-scale mountaintop removal mining. The process encouraged improved coordination between the two agencies and greater scrutiny of the environmental impacts of each valley fill permit before them.

But as you probably know, the environmental impacts of valley fills are inherently damaging. Just last week, a major study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that headwater streams beneath valley fills in southern West Virginia had two-thirds fewer fish than normal streams. Keep in mind that those Appalachian streams are the headwater streams for the drinking water of millions of Americans. Appalachian Voices was also curious about the potential economic impacts of coal pollution and found that there are a lot more jobs supported by the sportfishing industry in Appalachia than surface coal mining jobs — about seven times as many.

The second part of the court decision was related to the EPA’s guidance on conductivity. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. The USGS study also confirmed that conductivity levels below mountaintop removal valley fills are almost always elevated, damaging waters throughout the region.

The EPA released its guidance on conductivity pollution just over four years ago. At the time, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claimed that “either no or very few valley fills are going to meet standards like this.”

In order to “end coal mining pollution,” as she put it, the EPA was going to use its authority to restrict mountaintop removal valley fills, and thus significantly reduce the amount of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia. While the guidance would not have put a much-needed permanent end to mountaintop removal, it was an enormous step.

The coal industry fought the guidance with everything that had. Their allies on Capitol Hill held hearings to put political pressure on the EPA to stand down, while industry lawyers simultaneously took the agency to court.

Two years after the guidance had been proposed, it was thrown out by a U.S. District Court. With one bad court decision, EPA’s job to end coal mining pollution was made a lot harder.

Meanwhile, the EPA Region 4 office, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for Kentucky and other southeastern states, has been ignoring both the guidance and the rigorous science on which it was based. They continue to approve permits for valley fills, including six at one massive mine that got the agency’s OK just last year.

But on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals turned the tables. The panel of judges concluded that the guidance stands, as it is not a final rule, and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Furthermore, they confirmed, and in fact encouraged, the EPA’s enhanced coordination process.

The EPA has the legal authority, scientific evidence, and moral obligation to block every mountaintop removal valley fill permit that comes through its doors. We all share the responsibility of making sure it does just that.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

onefish_twofish

A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published this month provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.

That’s hardly news for long-time followers of the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that involves blowing off the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, that found:

“Our analyses of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address… Clearly, current attempts to regulate [mountaintop removal mining] practices are inadequate.”

The authors of the study published last week found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. They made this important contribution to the science by using rigorous methodology to isolate several types of water pollution most likely to have caused these staggering declines.

But a more important contribution of the study may be that it draws the focus of water pollution impacts away from mayflies and other aquatic insects and onto a far more popular and charismatic organism that not only is important to rural people’s way of life, but supports a multi-billion dollar sportfishing industry in Appalachia.

Tellingly, industry spokespeople contacted by local reporters did not dispute the science as they typically have in the past. Those that didn’t dodge reporters entirely were quick to change the subject to the purported benefits of mountaintop removal to create more flat land for industrial and commercial development (in a region where less than 10 percent of the more than 1 million acres of mountains that have already been flattened has been used for economic development).

This muted response is in stark contrast to the coal industry’s response to previous science linking mountaintop removal to the loss of aquatic insects downstream from mine sites. The “EPA puts mayflies ahead of jobs” or “pests over people” became the rallying cries of coal industry supporters when the EPA first began bringing science back into the permitting process in 2009.

One suspects that the coal industry knows it isn’t likely to win a “jobs vs. fish” debate with America’s 33 million anglers.

Widespread damage to fish populations could also be important from the pocketbook perspective that political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia take seriously. According to data [PDF] from the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing creates a lot more jobs than mountaintop removal does in the states where it occurs:

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In fact, sportfishing accounts for more than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, which is more than the entire coal mining workforce in the state, including all underground and surface miners, coal preparation plant workers and industry office workers combined. Moreover, unlike coal, sportfishing is a growing industry in Appalachia — the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

Of course, even if “jobs vs. fish” were a popular argument, it would be just as false a narrative as “pests over people.” Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects are important indicators of declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Thus, the USGS study is an important contribution to the debate about mountaintop removal for anyone concerned about recreational fishing, human health or the economy of Appalachia. Hopefully that’s everybody.

It’s also a very timely contribution because it turns out that the EPA and other federal agencies are right now grappling with important rules to protect streams that will determine whether the pollution that leads to the kinds of declines in fish populations seen by the USGS researchers will be allowed to continue.

The study found that waters downstream from mountaintop removal mines contained elevated levels of two forms of pollution that the researchers believe could account for the declines in fish populations: conductivity and selenium. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. Selenium has caused grotesque deformities in larval fish ranging from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This study should serve as a wake-up call to federal regulators that have been steadily backsliding from the Obama administration’s initial commitment to put science first in agency decision-making and to rein in the widespread damage from mountaintop removal mining. That backsliding has been particularly evident at the EPA’s Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for a number of southeastern states including Kentucky.

Enforcement officials at Region 4 have not incorporated the science and recommendations developed by the EPA for the guidance on conductivity since it was announced by previous EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010. At the time, Jackson predicted the new guidelines would allow “few, if any, valley fills” to be permitted. Since then, valley fills — debris piles composed of the soil and rock that formerly made up the mountaintops of Central Appalachia — have continued to be approved by Region 4, including a massive new mountaintop removal permit with six valley fills that was approved last year.

Region 4 officials also recently approved a weakening of Kentucky’s standards for chronic selenium levels in streams, allowing the state to permit levels high enough to cause reproductive failure in some fish. Worse, at the federal level, the EPA recently released a draft revision to its nationwide selenium rule that is likely to be all but impossible to enforce. That’s a particular problem in states like Kentucky that have proven time and again to be incapable of enforcing rules on the politically powerful coal industry without citizen groups intervening. Here’s what the Lexington Herald-Leader had to say about the state’s “failure to oversee a credible water monitoring program by the coal industry”:

“In some cases, state regulators allowed the companies to go for as long as three years without filing required quarterly water-monitoring reports. In other instances, the companies repeatedly filed the same highly detailed data, without even changing the dates. So complete was the lack of state oversight it’s impossible to say whether the mines were violating their water pollution permits or not.”

Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to take meaningful action to protect Appalachian streams this winter, when the Office of Surface Mining is scheduled to release a draft Stream Protection Rule to replace the outdated Stream Buffer Zone rule promulgated more than 30 years ago.

The message for the Obama administration from all this is that they are doing nobody any favors by taking half-measures to protecting water quality in Appalachia. When important recreational fish populations, a growing sector of the Appalachian economy and the health of Appalachian people clearly depend on strong water quality protections, the president’s spirit of compromise should not extend to compromising on science.

Here’s what you can do: tell President Obama to instruct his agencies to draft a strong Stream Protection Rule that will prohibit mining near streams and protect the health of people, fish and the economy of Appalachia. Take action here.

Community Impacts of Controversial Coalfields Expressway Project 
in Va. to Receive Thorough Review

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 - posted by cat

Contact: 

Jane Branham, Southern Appalachia Mountain Stewards, samsva@gmail.com, (276) 565-6167 

Deborah Murray, Southern Environmental Law Center, dmurray@selcva.org, (434) 977-4090 

Marley Green, Sierra Club, marley.green@sierraclub.org, (276) 639-6169 

Adam Beitman, Sierra Club, adam.beitman@sierraclub.org, (202) 675-2385 

Kate Rooth, Appalachian Voices, kate@appvoices.org, (434) 293-6373

Appalachia, VA — The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has announced that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will be required to conduct a full environmental review for a controversial 26-mile section of the Coalfields Expressway that would run through Wise, Dickenson, and Buchanan counties in southwest Virginia. Community groups in southwest Virginia and conservation organizations applaud the decision.

VDOT fundamentally changed the route and the nature of this section of the Coalfields Expressway when it partnered with coal companies to allow mountaintop removal mining as part of the project and failed to prepare a comprehensive analysis of its impacts on the community. The environmental study that FHWA is requiring must evaluate the public health and environmental harms of the proposal and examine a full suite of alternatives.

More than 85,000 citizens sent comments to VDOT and FHWA expressing their concerns about the harm that mountaintop removal mining associated with this project would have on drinking water, community health, and quality of life. Local citizens are also worried that the altered route would eliminate the economic benefits promised to the community because it would bypass local businesses, and the associated impacts from mining would detract from a growing tourism industry.

Three federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also urged FHWA and VDOT to prepare a comprehensive analysis that considers alternatives and evaluates the social, economic and environmental impacts of the mountaintop removal mining which is integral to the project.

“This decision is good news for the people of southwestern Virginia,” said Jane Branham, vice president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “We are pleased that FHWA and VDOT will take a hard look at the irresponsible and destructive mining practices that have already hurt our communities and that would be part of this ill-conceived strip mine/highway proposal.”

“We look forward to seeing a thorough review of the environmental consequences of this project, including an analysis of a range of highway alternatives that do not depend on mountaintop removal coal mining,” said Deborah Murray, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The decision-makers must keep in mind the original purpose and need of the project –serving the local communities.”

“VDOT now has the opportunity to take a fresh, honest look at this project,” said Marley Green, a Wise County resident and Sierra Club organizer in Virginia. “We have the chance to figure out the best ways to improve transportation access and diversify our struggling mountain economy.”

“The decision made by Federal Highways is a critical one. Mountaintop removal coal mining has had a devastating impact on communities in southwest Virginia, and now the state will be required to examine this road fully before spending our tax dollars on a deal that only helps coal companies rather than the community,” said Kate Rooth, campaign director with Appalachian Voices. “Now, local business owners, landowners, and citizens whose clean drinking water would be impacted can help VDOT design a project to truly benefit Central Appalachia.”

>> Click here for more background

###

About Southern Appalachia Mountain Stewards: Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) is an organization of concerned community members and their allies who are working to stop the destruction of our communities by surface coal mining, to improve the quality of life in our area, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. www.SAMSva.org

About the Southern Environmental Law Center: The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC’s team of about 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. www.SouthernEnvironment.org

About Sierra Club: The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 2.4 million members and supporters nationwide. In addition to creating opportunities for people of all ages, levels and locations to have meaningful outdoor experiences, the Sierra Club works to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and litigation. www.SierraClub.org

About Appalachian Voices: Appalachian Voices is an award-winning, environmental non-profit committed to protecting the natural resources of central and southern Appalachia, focusing on reducing coal’s impact on the region and advancing our vision for a cleaner energy future. Founded in 1997, we are headquartered in Boone, N.C. with offices in Charlottesville, Va.; Knoxville, Tn. and Washington, D.C. www.AppVoices.org

“Hollow” Documentary Wins Award

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 - posted by Carvan

By Kelsey Boyajian

Throughout “Hollow,” an interactive online documentary, the lush hills of Appalachia are juxtaposed beside stripped mountaintops. Through the stories of 30 individuals living in rural McDowell County, W.Va., director and producer Elaine McMillion uses a combination of web and film to spotlight the history and aspirations of the county’s 21,000 residents, and explores the uncertain future of rural America. McMillion, a West Virginia native, recently received the esteemed Peabody Award for the project.

Home to more than 100,000 residents in the 1950s, McDowell County is now among the one in three United States counties where more people leave than stay, according to the documentary trailer. As viewers scroll through a timeline of the county’s history through interviews, photographs, video and text, they witness the region’s struggles as well as the determined efforts of residents to revive their community.

Many towns in McDowell County, and Appalachia in general, have historically relied on coal as their sole industry. But as coal became less competitive in the marketplace and mountaintop removal mining increased, many jobs were cut. Since the 1970s, poverty, unemployment and drug addiction rates have skyrocketed. “Hollow” addresses the way these issues have affected the overall view of West Virginia, and attempts to dissolve these notions of Appalachia. “For many years we have been defined by an outsider perspective, which often oversimplifies and stereotypes us,” McMillion says.

Ellis Ray Williams, one resident featured in the film, offers a reason for the economic troubles in McDowell County. “We have a brain drain here,” Williams says, “The kids we send off to college, they don’t come back here, they have to go other places [for employment].” Community members have begun a movement to promote tourism in McDowell County to provide more job opportunities. By emphasizing the area’s tradition of bluegrass music as well as the recent restoration of the McDowell County Historical Society, they also hope to revitalize the arts and culture of the area.

“Just because it’s called one of the poorest counties in the U.S., heartwise, it’s not,” says Robert Diaz, a founding member of the Community Crossing Mission, one of many nonprofits hoping to restore prosperity in McDowell County.

In “Hollow,” Elaine McMillion pays homage to these individuals and landscapes, drawing from her own family’s history in rural West Virginia and shows how much heart this county — and Appalachia as a whole — still possesses.

Visit hollowdocumentary.com

Facing the Frontier: Practical Considerations for Genetic Modification in Appalachian Food

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 - posted by Carvan

By Valerie Bruchon

It sounds perfect: enter a laboratory, change one quality of a food crop through genetic technology, and walk away having created a “miracle” food source to help feed the world. This new crop might eradicate the need for destructive or unsustainable farming practices, or it could make farmland more productive by packing crops together more tightly, ultimately alleviating global hunger. You’ve probably heard the name of this technology before: genetic modification.

It's impossible to tell whether food such as these local blueberry plants is GMO-free just by looking at it.

It’s impossible to tell whether food such as these local blueberry plants is GMO-free just by looking at it. Photo by Valerie Bruchon

So what exactly is genetic modification? The meanings of “genetic modification,” “genetic manipulation” and “genetic engineering” may seem unclear, but most official sources consider all three to refer to the same thing: manipulating genetic material in a laboratory setting. Traditional breeding, such as hand-pollinating between two different types of tomatoes, does not fall under the definition of genetic modification. Genetic modification refers to modern biotechnology, and can even transfer genetic material between two unrelated species, such as bacteria and corn. But these modifications can involve so many different methods, and so many different organisms, that there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to the questions about their potential risks.

In 1996, when genetically modified foods entered the U.S. market, well under 10 percent of domestically grown corn and soy — the country’s two biggest crops by far — was genetically modified. Now, roughly 90 percent of these crops are genetically engineered. Much of this 90 percent is fed to livestock, which often ends up on our plates as meat. Most processed foods in the United States also contain some sort of corn or soy product.

Most of the engineering performed on corn and soybeans is intended either to make crops “immune” to the herbicides that are sprayed to kill weeds, or to make crops inedible to insect pests. This, advocates say, may decrease the need for chemicals that could potentially infiltrate water supplies or food. Yet over time, some of these undesirable weeds and insects have evolved a resistance to the substances — either in herbicides or produced by engineered crops — meant to kill them.

The effectiveness and safety of genetically modified organisms are still debated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration oversee GMO foods in the United States, so in theory, the ones that reach the market are safe. But often the research that informs GMO laws is funded by biotechnology companies themselves, especially at universities, where corporations dominate the funding of GMO research. “Big corporations are paying the land-grant colleges to do research,” says Tennessee State Senator Frank Niceley. “And unfortunately, they’ll prove what you pay them to prove.”

Since 1990, any food sold in America and labeled “organic” may not contain any genetically engineered ingredients. But so far, U.S. organic-labeling laws can be applied only to domestically-produced foods, which make up roughly 80 percent of the American diet. The remaining 20 percent is imported, from any combination of about 150 countries, which may have virtually untraceable supply chains and few labeling laws.

Genetic Technology on the Appalachian Table

Appalachia may be affected by genetically modified organisms in unique ways. The region has a distinct agricultural heritage and also faces a slew of health issues, including poor nutrition and obesity in children. “The best way to keep health-care costs down is teaching kids to eat healthy,” says Niceley. “But with current labeling laws, it’s hard to know what you’re really feeding your kids. And if things don’t kill people immediately, new [GMO] products can out-advertise healthier, more traditional ones.”

According to Jim Hamilton, director of Watauga County Cooperative Extension in North Carolina, “The loss of genetic diversity in crops [nationally] is a bigger deal than genetic modification itself.” He explains, “we’ve narrowed our varieties — with corn or soy, or even tomatoes — because the big companies are dictating prices, based on the types they can produce most cost-effectively.”

Stands of frasier fir Christmas trees, a major crop of western North Carolina, can be devastated by root rot fungus. Genetic modification may hold promise for breeding resistance in the trees. Photos by Valerie Bruchon.

Stands of frasier fir Christmas trees, a major crop of western North Carolina, can be devastated by root rot fungus. Genetic modification may hold promise for breeding resistance in the trees. Photo by Valerie Bruchon

Niceley shares similar concerns. As he puts it, “In agriculture, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Just like you don’t want one outfit furnishing all the seed and all the herbicide, you don’t want just one crop, or only one breed. To keep people healthy every day, and also if a disaster occurred, you get resilience and strength through diversity.”

Compared to areas of the United States that are dominated by one or two crops, Appalachia’s agricultural heritage is diverse. Appalachia has a wide variety of local climates and terrains, which make growing large areas of just one crop economically infeasible. Also, early interactions with Native Americans endowed Appalachian settlers with a rich variety of heirloom foods, strains of which have been locally preserved. These factors result in Appalachia’s patchwork of specialty crops, from blueberries to winter squash. The region has also seen an unmistakable rise in the production of non-GMO foods: now, roughly 33 percent more Appalachian farms are growing at least one non-GMO product than twelve years ago.

Since 2013, lawmakers in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia have introduced GMO legislation, currently under review, that aims to require the labeling of GMO foods sold in those states. And in May, Vermont passed the nation’s first GMO-labeling law. Niceley, a Republican who is known for his outspoken persona, has been spearheading similar attempts in Tennessee. This bill would mandate that “genetically engineered food products sold in Tennessee must contain a label plainly visible on the display panel that conspicuously contains the words ‘genetically engineered.’”

Niceley explains that he was raised on his great-grandfather’s farm and continues to cultivate his family’s relationship to the land. “I have three daughters who are [very serious about their food], and we raise pastured beef, free-range chickens, heirloom cornmeal and grits, and more,” he says. With an education in soil science, and family members who worked in nursing and medicine, Niceley looks at GMO issues from both agricultural and nutritional standpoints. “Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, and then eating those plants keeps us healthy,” he states. But, he says, referring to the fact that many GMOs are designed with only one goal in mind — usually crop yield — “with GMOs, the nutrition just isn’t there. It looks like a bushel of corn, but doesn’t have the protein or the minerals. For ethanol or high-fructose corn syrup, [GMOs are] just as good, but for food-grade uses, no.”

But Brian Chatham, conservation technician at the Watauga County Soil and Water Conservation Office, has different reservations. “I don’t have a problem with right-to-know labeling, but if it elevates other costs like marketing, there could be problems further on down,” says Chatham. “We deserve to know what we’re eating, but at the same time, everything is not as bad as the media makes it sound.”

GMOs: Possibilities and Pitfalls

To speak plainly, this is not a straightforward issue. Some well-respected associations — for example, the American Medical Association and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences — state that they believe GMOs to be safe. Perhaps conservative use of genetic engineering, coupled with innovative uses of traditional farming practices, can reduce the concentration of agricultural chemicals in our water supply. And GMOs could help sustain agriculture in communities with harsh growing climates, where the next meal is never guaranteed.

On the other hand, GMOs have not been a significant presence in human diets for very long. Fifteen years, give or take, is just a blip on the radar when determining longer-term effects on human health. And increasingly, weeds, pathogens, and insect pests are displaying resistance against the very technology that was designed to render them harmless. These emerging patterns may hint that no technology can permanently outsmart evolution in nature.

A sweeping ban on GMOs may be extreme. Yet, as with any technology at the frontier of science – and especially one that is being applied to billions of people — it will likely prove wise to think about the possible outcomes. Referring to a common gene in GMO crops, Niceley says, “The [Bacillus thuringiensis] gene is in everything now, and it’s just too early to tell what it’s gonna do to us […] Science is so much smarter now — there is so much information out there, but nobody is sitting down and looking at the big picture.”

Communities Pursue Revitalization Plans

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 - posted by Carvan

By Carvan Craft

Convenient access to local food can be a rare commodity in rural communities. Thanks to the Appalachian Livable Communities grant program, founded in 2012, five Appalachian communities will receive a shared total of $375,000 to help make local food projects a reality.

The grant will fund a new agricultural education facility for local farmers in Berea, Ky. In North Wilkesboro, N.C., the farmers market will be moved to a new downtown location so local produce will be at the focal point of the town. The grant will fund local food networks that focus on education, sustainability, and healthy eating in Huntington, W. Va. The town of Albany, Mississippi will build a riverfront farmers market.

In Forest City, N.C., there are plans to build a Regional Agriculture Innovations Center where farmers can exchange new farming methods. Danielle Withrow, Forest City town planner, says this facility will be “the most comprehensive resource for agriculture in the foothills region.”

There are also plans to relocate the Rutherford County Farmers Market to downtown Forest City. Having a farmers market downtown provides greater access to locally grown food, explains Withrow. She says the city is promoting the farmers market to “give people a local alternative for buying local products.”

Withrow says other environmentally conscious industries will come to Forest City because the community is becoming more sustainability-minded. “In today’s world, people are looking for the places that are doing the right thing,” she adds.

The Appalachian Livable Communities grants are funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For more information, visit arc.gov

Poll Finds Increase in Support for Environment

By Kelsey Boyajian

A recent Gallup-Healthways poll reports that more Americans favor prioritizing environmental protection over economic growth. When the poll began in the 1980s, most Americans gave priority to the environment, but this trend reversed following the 2009 recession, with more Americans endorsing economic growth even if it compromised the environment. In this year’s survey, 50 percent of Americans prefer environmental protection and 41 percent prefer economic growth. Support for environmental protection has increased among both major political parties, and is endorsed by two-thirds of Democrats and one-third of Republicans.

Acrobats of the Forest: The Eastern Gray Treefrog

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 - posted by Carvan

By Meredith Warfield

It’s mating season in Appalachia, and the region’s deciduous forests are humming with life. Birdsongs may be heard by day, but by night the Eastern gray treefrogs have hopped out of the branches and flocked to nearby ponds, where they can be heard singing their melodic love songs in hopes of attracting a partner.

The Eastern gray treefrog looks physically similar to the Cope's treefrog. They can only be differtiated by their mating calls. Listen online at appvoices.org/thevoice

The Eastern gray treefrog looks physically similar to the Cope’s treefrog. They can only be differtiated by their mating calls. Listen to the video below. Photo by Robert A. Coggeshall (Kiowa)

Once the mating is over, the females will search for a shallow, calm place to lay their jelly-encased eggs, which will hatch in four to five days, then develop from tadpoles to froglets in about two months. Female gray treefrogs will lay up to 2,000 eggs at a time in clusters of 20. After a night of mating in late spring, the landscape is littered with frog egg clusters in swamps, ponds, standing water in tire ruts and even swimming pools.

This species of treefrog, the Hyla versicolor, commonly known as the gray treefrog, has a far-reaching range along the East Coast, stretching from Manitoba in the northwest to Florida in the south. Although some amphibian populations in Appalachia are struggling, such as the Northern pygmy salamander, the gray treefrog is currently thriving. There may be a few of these creatures nestled in the damp shade of your backyard, but often the gray treefrog goes unnoticed by humans. This is because the gray treefrog is nocturnal and can camouflage with its surroundings in seconds.

The Cope's treefrog and the Eastern gray treefrog both have yellow patches on the  underside of their hind legs.

The Cope’s treefrog and the Eastern gray tree frog both have yellow patches on the underside of their hind legs. Photo by Patrick Coin

Gray treefrogs are typically about two inches long and can be identified by their slightly warty skin, their large, sticky toe pads for tree climbing, and most distinctively, the bright yellow-to-orange patch under their thighs that is believed to scare off predators. A close sibling to the gray treefrog is the Hyla chrysoscelis, or Cope’s gray treefrog, which is almost completely identical to the Eastern gray treefrog. The species are thought to interbreed in some areas, but the only way to tell the two apart is by their mating calls. The gray treefrog’s call tends to be more songlike than that of the Cope’s treefrog, which has a stronger tinge of croaking to it.

The sounds of the season occur from April to August, and in the winter these creatures are able to partially freeze for hibernation. Their heartbeat and breathing stop completely as they rest under dead leaves or a rock on the forest floor. Gray treefrogs are able to do this because their bodies contain large amounts of a chemical called glycerol, which is transformed into glucose and acts as an antifreeze to prevent ice crystals from forming in the cells and keep body fluids from freezing solid. When the temperature warms up, the frogs thaw out and leap back into the trees.

Once in the trees, these amphibians are the acrobats of the forest, springing and vaulting from tree to tree in search of a nice meal. Usually a juicy beetle, moth or cricket will do the trick. These creatures spend more than 90 percent of the year in tree branches, with the exception of mating season. The best way to catch a glimpse may be to sit outside on a nice, warm evening and listen closely to the teeming nightlife of the trees.