Posts Tagged ‘appalachia’

Central Appalachian-focused James River Coal Company enters bankruptcy

Friday, April 11th, 2014 - posted by brian
James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia's most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties.

James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia’s most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties. Click to enlarge.

This week, James River Coal Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in federal court. Like Patriot Coal, which reemerged from bankruptcy in December, the Richmond, Va.-based company’s operations are concentrated in Central Appalachia and are located in some of the counties most economically vulnerable to coal’s downturn.

According to a 2013 report by Downstream Strategies, eastern Kentucky’s Knott, Letcher, Pike, Bell, and Harlan counties are particularly vulnerable to shifting coal demand and changes in electricity markets, and therefore, require the most immediate attention from policymakers seeking to alleviate the economic impacts of the region’s declining coal industry.

James River has historically operated in all of those counties. But in September 2013, poor demand forced the company to lay off 525 employees and idle production at its McCoy-Elkhorn complex in Pike and Floyd counties and the Bledsoe complex in Leslie and Harlan counties.

Two months later, the struggling coal operator idled four more mines and furloughed 200 workers.

James River has not posted an annual net profit since 2010 and reported net loss of approximately $16.4 million in 2013. Investors expected the bankruptcy was imminent after the company recently received a notice from Nasdaq that it was not complying with the stock market’s rules after its stock closed below $1 per share for 30 business days.

In its bankruptcy filing, the company said it has assets valued at about $1.06 billion and liabilities of about $818.7 million, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“The coal markets in the U.S. have changed dramatically during the past several years,” said James River Chairman and CEO Peter T. Socha. “Some of these changes are cyclical due to continued weakness in the real economy. Other of the changes are more permanent like changes in government environmental regulations, improved methods to produce natural gas, and switching between coal basins by domestic power utilities.”

A federal judge approved James River’s request to continue operations during its restructuring process, including paying wages and providing health care and other benefits to its 1,200 employees.

The company also appears committed to carrying out its contracts with electric utilities such as Indianapolis Power & Light, and Kentucky Utilities Co., which it supplies with coal from more productive mines in the Illinois Basin.

Either way, according to SNL Energy, James River’s chances for survival post-bankruptcy could be hindered by expiring contracts with electric utilities and the shrinking demand for Central Appalachian coal.

Toxic Warnings: Recent Spills Underscore Lack of Water Oversight

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Kimber Ray

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UPDATE: The original article incorrectly states that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources would allow the citizen lawsuit against Duke Energy to move forward. Although citizen groups including those represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center are now co-plaintiffs in the case, this development was the result of court filed motions rather than a decision of the state.
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In the early morning hours of Jan. 9, Kim Thompson was getting ready to leave her South Charleston home in Kanawha Co. — the most populated region in the mountains of West Virginia — and head out to her job as field supervisor for a local telecommunications company. As she twisted the shower faucets off, she had no way to imagine that those final drips of water signaled the last time she would use that shower.

Coal ash from the Dan River; in the month of the spill, the ash pooled up in eddies along the bank near the site of the leaking pipe in Eden, N.C. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Coal ash from the Dan River; in the month of the spill, the ash pooled up in eddies along the bank near the site of the leaking pipe in Eden, N.C. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Many people affected by Freedom Industry’s toxic chemical leak into the Elk River — a spill that contaminated the drinking water of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents — still do not feel safe using their water. “That day marked a complete change in how we live,” reflects Thompson.

As reports of the disaster swept across the nation, it began to emerge that much of this news was nothing new. Not only has chronic water pollution long been widespread in West Virginia, but the lurking possibility of serious contamination spills over into every state.

In North Carolina and Virginia, this overflowed into reality on Feb. 2 at Duke Energy’s retired coal plant near Eden N.C. A 50-year-old stormwater pipe precariously situated beneath an unlined coal ash pond burst, allowing 39,000 tons of ash to enter the Dan River. The incident would be classified as the third largest coal ash spill in national history.

The next week, a Patriot Coal plant spilled more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into Fields Creek, W.Va. Six miles of water were blackened with a thick mixture of toxic heavy metals and chemicals; the riverbank was plastered with a gray sludge. Although West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman called the spill “significant,” he didn’t consider it significant enough to warrant much beyond an order to stop.

Photo by Foo Conner

Efforts to contain the Fields Creek coal slurry spill with hay bales and gravel proved to be unsuccessful. Photo by Foo Conner

Efforts to contain the spill with hay bales and gravel proved to be unsuccessful. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Following these three spills, publications and television programs including National Geographic, the Washington Post and The Rachel Maddow Show began questioning: “How did these spills happen?” and “How safe is our water?” The U.S. Attorney General’s Office launched criminal investigations of state officials and company executives in both states.

The widening scope of public scrutiny has only dug up deeper concerns. In both West Virginia and North Carolina, mounting evidence suggests that state officials have weakened state and federal environmental rules — despite the known risks — and citizens are paying the price. Regulations on many dangerous chemicals are nonexistent, state officials are known to turn a blind eye to poorly maintained facilities and, even when people are left with poisoned water and a fouled environment, violators are rarely held accountable. All too often, the public has been expected to pick up the tab for the hidden costs of coal — whether it’s waste from mining, or waste from burning coal for electricity.

Such discoveries are unsurprising to Dr. Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University. Although major spills receive the most attention, chronic pollution poses a greater threat to communities because the poison is more subtle.

“You don’t need to wait for a spill to realize there’s a problem. And it’s not just North Carolina — it’s a national issue,” says Vengosh. “Without any monitoring, we don’t even know what’s happening. We should be working to prevent things before they happen rather than dealing with them after they happen.”

In the Wake of the Impact: Dan River

“We still haven’t heard from Duke on their plans for the cleanup,” says Jenny Edwards, program director for the environmental group Dan River Basin Association. “Can they clean it up? What’s the impact of the clean up? We’re concerned about the long-term health of the river.”

Coal ash — the waste produced by burning coal for electricity — contains a lineup of toxic health offenders including arsenic, selenium, mercury and lead. Since the leaking pipe was plugged Feb. 8, the water in the river now runs clear and the slicks of coal ash on the riverbank that Edwards saw spattered with wildlife tracks have washed away. The real damage sits below the surface. In layers sometimes five feet thick, coal ash blankets the bottom of the river for more than 70 miles.

Coal ash from the Dan River power plant is seen along the banks in the month of the spill. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Coal ash from the Dan River power plant is seen along the banks in the month of the spill. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

“The coal ash is so fine and sticky that it covers and coats everything it touches,” explains Dr. Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an associate professor at Wake Forest University. “One of the first things to be affected are the animals that can’t leave, mussels and clams, benthic insects, crayfish, all those little critters that can’t swim away or get away from it are just covered up and suffocated,” he adds.

At the beginning of March, the Dan River Basin Association was already reporting an abnormal number of dead mussels and clams piling up on the riverbank. Lemly is concerned things will only get worse. For more than 30 years, he has investigated selenium, a chemical in coal ash that causes death and deformity in fish. Selenium poisoning can persist for generations, accumulating as creatures eat one another and even passing along in fish from parent to offspring.

A persistently poisoned fish population could have a sweeping impact on river life. “There’s a chain effect, that’s why it’s called a food chain,” Lemly says, “and if you cut the bottom length of the food chain then everything above it suffers.” For now, it’s too soon to tell just how powerful this chain effect will be; the answer awaits the arrival of migrating fish this coming spring.

River life affected by the Dan River coal ash spill includes mollusks, pictured here, dead, as well as turtles and two endangered species. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

River life affected by the Dan River coal ash spill includes mollusks, pictured here, dead, as well as turtles and two endangered species. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

About 20 miles downstream from the site of the spill, the Dan River flows through the heart of the city of Danville, Va. Joe King, city manager, can even see the river from his window at work. “People are very intimate with the river here,” he comments. “It’s not in a gorge, it’s in the city.” King watched the river turn a murky gray in the days after the spill, but after the first week, visible signs of coal ash were gone.

Danville is an old industrial city where tobacco and textile manufacturing once thrived. In an effort to build a new economy, the city has been working on repurposing old warehouses to serve as businesses and apartments. King is concerned that the spill may create a falsely negative perception of the city, causing residents to leave and businesses to stay away. “That’s the last thing we need,” he adds.

Testing of tap water in the city has consistently shown that the contaminants are being filtered out. In fact, the heavy metals of coal ash are easy to remove from drinking water because the particles are so large. Yet some residents are skeptical; bottled water sales in the area have increased since the spill.

One root of this doubt may be the unusual way that Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources initially handled the spill. Duke first alerted the city of the incident by calling the Danville fire department to say there may have been a coal ash spill and offering no details. Public notification of the spill was deferred for more than 24 hours. Accurate water quality testing, plugging the leaking pipe and work to clean up the Dan River have all suffered delays as well, leaving the public angry and confused.

In the Wake of the Impact: West Virginia

When West Virginia American Water Company first issued “Do Not Use” advisories to 300,000 water customers across nine counties on Jan. 9, it was a confident order. In the weeks to follow, it morphed into a confusing suggestion.

“It’s your decision,” said Governor Earl Ray Tomblin during a Jan. 20 news conference. “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use [the water].”

In the hours after the cracked storage tank owned by Freedom Industries spilled a 10,000-gallon chemical blend of crude methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, and propylene glycol phenyl ether, or PPH, into West Virginia’s Elk River, nine counties served by West Virginia American Water were affected. The water company had been alerted of the spill by noon, but believed they could filter out the contaminants. It was 5:45 p.m. before customers were warned to stop using their water.

Health officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control initially announced that levels of MCHM below one part per million were safe for consumption. But two days later the agency added that this level may not be safe for pregnant women, leaving residents to wonder just how officials were getting these numbers. Public confidence was further shaken when The Charleston Gazette reported that this threshold was based on a 1990 study of ten rats and a different chemical — pure MCHM, which is not identical to crude MCHM. There are still no studies on how MCHM affects humans.

The government lifted the “Do Not Use” order ten days after the spill. Yet in the days that followed, hospital admissions for symptoms related to MCHM dramatically increased. Hundreds of residents have been treated at local hospitals for chemical burns, rashes and chemical-induced pneumonia even as West Virginia American Water Company continued to assert that their water was safe.

Then, on Jan. 23, Freedom Industries, which had remained mysteriously silent during the crisis, emerged only to report that a second chemical — PPH — was also in the spill, but the ingredients were a trade secret.

“It makes you suspect when you know how many days passed and then they said ‘Oh, by the way, PPH was in there as well,’” says local resident Kim Thompson, “and as far as I know, they never did testing for PPH.” The lack of trust now makes her wonder what else citizens are not being told.

As security looks on, free water is distributed on March 14 in front of the Governor’s Mansion lawn in Charleston, W.Va. Residents and grassroots organization Mountain Justice coordinated the event as part of ongoing efforts to call for increased support of West Virginians still impacted by the chemical spill. Photo by Joe Solomon

As security looks on, free water is distributed on March 14 in front of the Governor’s Mansion lawn in Charleston, W.Va. Residents and grassroots organization Mountain Justice coordinated the event as part of ongoing efforts to call for increased support of West Virginians still impacted by the chemical spill. Photo by Joe Solomon

By early February, the CDC said the water was safe for all residents, even pregnant women. But many residents are still demanding bottled water. Even in March, the distinct, licorice-like odor of MCHM continues to permeate many households across West Virginia. A National Science Foundation-funded study confirmed residents’ fears, finding that the human nose is able to detect significantly lower levels of MCHM than even the most advanced analytical tools.

“I’ve been to many homes where people are still scarred on their hands from this water, and who knows the long-term effects?” comments Thompson. “That’s why so many people aren’t using the water, because they were physically affected, lied to and continuously ignored.”

Bulk water distribution centers around the state have been quietly shutting down despite no one — not even health or government officials — being certain that minute levels of chemicals are not continuing to impact the health of residents.

West Virginia Clean Water Hub — a grassroots organization that formed the same day the spill was announced—is one of the few organizations still distributing free water in the state. Thompson joined as a volunteer in the week when the organization began. “This chemical spill made me helpless, angry and useless,” she states, “and by getting involved, that in turn has led me to at least feel a little bit of power, and I’m trying to give that to communities.”

Thompson has since emerged as the Water Hub’s leading point person in Charleston, guiding and maintaining the group’s water distribution in her city. At her own home, bottled water and water from rain catchments and melted snow is used for everything they do. A camp shower in her basement is used for bathing. “I will never probably drink it ever, ever again,” says Thompson, “or cook with it, or wash, or brush my teeth with it, my animals will never drink with it.”

Jennifer Weidhaas, a civil and environmental engineer at West Virginia University who also received a grant from the National Science Foundation, is studying how crude MCHM travels through the water system. She says given the miles and miles of pipes that need to be cleaned out, low concentrations of the chemical may be in the drinking system for some time to come.

Breaching a History of Disregard

The day following the chemical spill, Gov. Tomblin announced, “This is not a coal company incident; this is a chemical company incident.”

“That’s an absolute lie,” says Jack Spadaro, a former mine inspector who has worked on coal issues in West Virginia for decades, “[MCHM] is a chemical used in coal preparation.” In order to clean and process coal for use at coal-fired power plants and smelting furnaces, chemicals such as MCHM are used to remove impurities. This results in a waste byproduct known as coal slurry, which is what blackened six miles of Fields Creek on Feb. 11 when a valve at Patriot Coal malfunctioned.

Spadaro is not surprised by the Patriot Coal spill. “What happened on Fields Creek is commonplace,” he states. “It happens every few weeks.” He says state officials have “a history of accommodating the coal industry” and he can recall a long list of incidents where this came at the expense of West Virginia communities.

Water samples taken at Fields Creek on the day of the spill by Appalachian Voices revealed levels of contaminants in violation of the Clean Water Act, as well as the presence of MCHM. At press time, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had not released test results from the spill or issued any fines. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Water samples taken at Fields Creek on the day of the spill by Appalachian Voices revealed levels of contaminants in violation of the Clean Water Act, as well as the presence of MCHM. At press time, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had not released test results from the spill or issued any fines. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

One such case in Boone County’s Seth-Prenter area casts a striking reflection on the Elk River chemical spill. For the past decade, people had been reporting painful rashes and burns and, throughout the years, locals experienced an unusually high rate of conditions such as kidney and liver failure and brain tumors. Shortly before these symptoms started to appear, Massey Energy — later acquired by Alpha Natural Resources — began pumping 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry into nearby abandoned mines for permanent storage.

Several studies indicated that the coal slurry had migrated into local well water. But despite the fact that the same chemicals injected deep underground were also found in residents’ taps, WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman denied that coal slurry was the cause. With about 350 individuals affected, the incident received minimal attention. Residents filed a lawsuit and, in the years before their case was settled in 2012, many relied solely on bottled water. Relief came in the form of a public water line connecting them to West Virginia American Water.

The Elk River chemical spill shattered this temporary respite. Maria Lambert, a resident of Prenter, describes the current smell of her tap water as the same “very sweet, stomach-sickening odor we endured eight years ago,” in a recent Business Insider article. Lambert’s experience is not uncommon — Thompson says many people have been connected to American Water pipes after their wells were contaminated by coal-related activities. Documents from the state’s commission governing public utilities support this, with water company executives reporting on extending service to coal impacted communities.

Still, Thompson adds, “Who would have thought you could have these chemicals just above a water plant and no one was regulating them?”

The Myth of Overregulation

The water crises in West Virginia and North Carolina turned the public eye to a long-standing problem: for much of the hazardous waste connected to coal, regulations and inspections are limited, and enforcement is rare.

As far as state or federal environmental laws are concerned, neither MCHM nor other waste from coal is considered “hazardous.” Because of this, West Virginia and North Carolina do not have strict requirements on how these contaminants are stored, and contamination of nearby drinking and groundwater occurs daily.

“What most people don’t realize is, a lot of stuff is less regulated than household waste,” says Amy Adams, a former employee of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and current North Carolina Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper. “Our waterways are protected from trash dumps, but not unlined pits of toxic waste.”

Although the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 sets acceptable limits on water pollutants, states are responsible for enforcement. Many waterways have been in violation of the Clean Water Act for decades, but state regulators seldom act — they may not even notice. In states such as North Carolina and West Virginia, inspections have been curbed, in part due to continued budget cuts to state and federal environmental agencies.

Adams says cuts to DENR became particularly hard-hitting in 2011. “We have to have people with boots on the ground if we are to be vigilant in protecting our resources,” Adams comments. For North Carolina and West Virginia, those “boots on the ground” often belong to the same companies responsible for polluting the waterways. Both states have a self-reporting system where companies are expected to monitor and report their discharges. Sometimes companies disclose their violations, sometimes they don’t — it doesn’t tend to matter either way because enforcement on the state level has become increasingly weak or non-existent.

Duke Energy initially reported that the ruptured Dan River pipe was constructed from concrete. Investigations have revealed that while the visible ends of the pipe are concrete, cheaper, failure-prone metal was used for the length of the pipe. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Duke Energy initially reported that the ruptured Dan River pipe was constructed from concrete. Investigations have revealed that while the visible ends of the pipe are concrete, cheaper, failure-prone metal was used for the length of the pipe. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

The day before the West Virginia chemical spill, Gov. Tomblin declared in his state address that he would “never back down from the EPA” even as others were calling for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to step up. Since 2009, widespread criticism of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection has pushed environmental groups in West Virginia to petition the EPA to take over the state agency. Federal regulators are still investigating their complaints.

A bill to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks was passed in West Virginia this March. No regulations on chemicals were established but, among other things, the bill aims to use a fee on tanks to fund further inspections. Historically, however, West Virginia’s inspectors have not followed a straight path from deficient facilities to mandatory enforcement. Spadaro is particularly pessimistic.

“The bill does not take the strong preventative action required to prevent this from happening again,” he says. “It’s a window dressing legislation weakened by lobbyists for the chemical industry, and in no way deals with what the state should be doing to protect water supplies from similar types of spills.”

“Business Friendly” is Bad for Business

When North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory passed a regulatory reform bill this past August that allowed Duke Energy to pollute groundwater near its coal ash ponds, he claimed his move “cuts government red tape, axes overly burdensome regulations, and puts job creation first.”

This bill built Duke a buffer against mounting lawsuits from citizens and environmental groups — including Appalachian Voices — who were suing Duke for Clean Water Act violations. As the lawsuits continued to move forward, North Carolina’s environmental agency intervened, taking over the litigation and proposing a settlement that would allow Duke to avoid costly cleanup of its leaking coal ash ponds and pay a trivial fine.

More than 9,000 petitions were delivered on Feb. 25 to Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., demanding that the utility take full financial responsibility for the Dan River coal ash spill and also move its 31 other coal ash ponds into lined basins away from waterways. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

More than 9,000 petitions were delivered on Feb. 25 to Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., demanding that the utility take full financial responsibility for the Dan River coal ash spill and also move its 31 other coal ash ponds into lined basins away from waterways. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

“The fundamental truth is that proper pollution controls cost money,” says Adams and, because of the Dan River coal ash spill, “North Carolina has experienced first-hand the cost of a deregulated environment.”

In fact, contrary to McCrory’s statement, some sources indicate that regulations improve the economy. A 2013 report by the Office of Management and Budget found that while the costs of major environmental regulations have been no more than $40 billion, the estimated benefits range from $112 billion to $637 billion. Benefits include increased labor needed to meet requirements and public savings when community health is protected.

The report also confirmed that people do not want to live in contaminated communities. Both West Virginia and the city of Danville are contending with this issue. While Danville, Va., City Manager Joe King worries that businesses may now avoid his area, West Virginia resident Kim Thompson says people are already leaving Charleston. “If I could, I would sell my house right now, too,” she says.

Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizens’ Action Group, says the hardship of contaminated water is particularly difficult for low-income residents. “It’s a triple whammy,” Zuckett states. “Restaurants and hotels shut down, so people were out of work, schools shut down so kids were not fed at school, and if parents were working they needed to pay for daycare. Then there’s the extra expense of buying bottled water,” he adds.

According to forest service biologist Lemly, the long-term environmental and economic toll in North Carolina and Virginia could total as much as $700 million. “When we talk about cheap coal, we forget about the environment, we forget about the implications,” says Duke University’s Vengosh. “The environmental and economic implications for coal ash are not cheap.”

In both North Carolina and Virginia, Duke executives have promised to pay for the cleanup of the Dan River. At the urging of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Duke has also agreed to cover any additional costs faced by Virginia as a result of the spill; no such promise has been made in North Carolina. In fact, Duke has indicated that for the cost of moving its other coal ash ponds away from public waterways — and ensuring the safety of local communities in the state — it hopes to pass any expenses on to ratepayers across North Carolina.

The apparent role of state regulators in shielding coal-related facilities from punitive fines has raised skepticism from the public and the federal government. By mid-March, a federal grand jury had begun a criminal investigation of the relationship between Duke and DENR; details about a separate criminal investigation in West Virginia have been much more limited.

In response to the swell of public pressure and scrutiny, North Carolina officials have been scrambling to issue long-overdue enforcements. Duke Energy plants have been cited for failing to maintain facilities, lacking stormwater permits and, even when they do have permits, dumping illegal volumes of pollutants. At the end of March, DENR announced that they would allow the citizen lawsuit against Duke Energy to continue.

Public Response

In West Virginia citizens anticipate significant changes but are not hanging all their hopes on a strong government response. “Who’s to say this won’t happen again?” asks Thompson.

On Feb. 8, citizens and community organizations marched to West Virginia American Water to demand compensation for the expenses they incurred as a result of the chemical spill. They say the private utility contributed to the problem. Among other things, the water company billed customers based on estimated historical usage in January even though many were unable to use their water during this time. Photo by Vivian Stockman

On Feb. 8, citizens and community organizations marched to West Virginia American Water to demand compensation for the expenses they incurred as a result of the chemical spill. They say the private utility contributed to the problem. Among other things, the water company billed customers based on estimated historical usage in January even though many were unable to use their water during this time. Photo by Vivian Stockman

To address long-term concerns, the West Virginia Clean Water Hub is starting a program to empower citizens to obtain their own water. Online fundraising will pay for trucks to carry in tanks of water, training on rain filtration, and the purchase of 250-gallon containers for rainwater. Reimbursement efforts for water expenses also may be successful. My Clean H2O Matters, a march organized by West Virginia community groups, presented WVAW with invoices for personal costs incurred by the spill, and the utility has offered to review the claims.

In North Carolina, citizens and environmental organizations continue pressing DENR to implement enforcement action against Duke. Independent groups including Appalachian Voices, the Dan River Basin Association and the city of Danville, Va., are monitoring the quality of the Dan. Rallies protesting Duke Energy and events in support of the river have been widespread across the state.

This renewed attention on water rights has coincided with action around the country to reign in corporate pollution. In March, the EPA announced the largest enforcement fine ever: a $27.5 million penalty against Alpha Natural Resources for more than 6,000 water pollution permit violations in five Appalachian states. In Kentucky, the Sierra Club has used the momentum to highlight contamination from a Louisville Gas & Electric facility, where the company has been discharging coal ash into the Ohio River daily for five years. But Thompson warns that change won’t happen overnight. “Unless we take a sense of ownership in this, the problem’s not going to change,” says Thompson. “And I haven’t met a person yet who can live without water.”

Appalachia’s Place in the War on Poverty

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Molly Moore

Patsy Dowling considers herself a success of the War on Poverty.

During his official poverty tour in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shook the hand of a resident in an undisclosed part of Appalachia. Photo courtesy LBJ Library, by Cecil Stoughton

During his official poverty tour in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shook the hand of a resident in an undisclosed part of Appalachia. Photo courtesy LBJ Library, by Cecil Stoughton

As a premature baby born in western North Carolina in 1964 — the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty — Dowling entered a world where the medical bills from her early arrival were a steep financial burden for her parents.

Poverty had a profound impact on Dowling’s youth, as did the Economic Opportunity Act that Johnson signed in 1964. On Valentine’s Day, a second-grade Dowling learned that one of her dearest friends had passed away from illness because her family couldn’t pay for care. She recalls standing beside her friend’s coffin more vividly than she remembers her high school prom dress. Yet she also clearly remembers her excitement when an outreach worker from Mountain Projects, Inc., one of the new community action agencies created to fight poverty, visited her home and offered her a seat in Head Start, an early childhood school-readiness program she saw as “the best thing in the world.”

Dowling, now executive director of Mountain Projects, estimates that about 90 percent of her Head Start classmates were able to overcome their families’ financial difficulties. Today, Head Start remains at the core of the agency, but other top priorities include heating assistance for struggling families and transportation for the elderly. “We still have a lot of work to do, but I do think the War on Poverty has made a substantial impact in this country from my perspective of having lived it,” Dowling says.

National and regional data support her view that the policies set in motion in the mid-1960s — such as Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps and Head Start — have helped avert dire economic circumstances for much of the population. When researchers from Columbia University examined the impact of government benefits such as housing assistance and tax credits during the period from 1967 to 2011, they found that the 16 percent national poverty rate in 2011 would have been equivalent to 29 percent without those benefits. Yet, as the nation grapples with growing income inequality and the slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2009, it’s clear that the War on Poverty is not over.

Charting Appalachian Poverty

Ever since President Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America,” Appalachia has held special significance in the national effort. In 1964, when the president embarked on a publicity tour to build support for the new programs, he led national media to eastern Kentucky, where he was famously photographed speaking with a poor Appalachian family on their front porch.

The official definition of Appalachia also formed in the early 1960s, as regional governors encouraged the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to assist their mountain counties, where one in three residents lived in poverty. The resulting legislation, the Appalachian Regional Development Act, added a unique, place-based dimension to the War on Poverty’s suite of national programs.

Fifty years later, however, central Appalachia is still a national epicenter of poverty, sharing the distinction with the Mississippi Delta and several western Native American regions. And while data from both Appalachia and the nation at large shows an overall reduction in poverty, deep inequity persists within the region.

From the outset, central Appalachia faced the steepest challenge. Dr. James Ziliak, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research, calculated poverty rates both nationally and within Appalachia in 1960 and 2000. Faced with a poverty rate of 59.4 percent in 1960, central Appalachia was far more impoverished than its northern neighbors, with southern Appalachian states a close second. By 2000, the poverty rate in the southern and northern areas was slightly above the rest of the country’s average of 13.4 percent. Yet poverty in central Appalachia stayed stubbornly high at nearly 23 percent.

Ziliak attributes this partially to the fact that federal aid originally intended to address the deep poverty in the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia was ultimately dispersed over a larger area. Between 1965 and 2008, the official Appalachian zone expanded from 360 counties in 11 states to its present size — 420 counties in 13 states.

In the decades after the War on Poverty began, northern and southern Appalachia fared better than the central states. Map created March 2013; Data source: US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2007-2011

In the decades after the War on Poverty began, northern and southern Appalachia fared better than the central states. Map created March 2013; Data source: US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2007-2011

Proponents of the Appalachian Regional Development Act, passed in 1965, argued that the country had exploited the deeply impoverished parts of Appalachia through decades of coal and timber extraction and that the region deserved compensation. The law created the Appalachian Regional Commission to invest in areas such as education, job training and transportation infrastructure. Still, Ziliak notes, “the money flowed more toward the urban areas in the region and not toward the really high-need rural parts that many governors and policymakers in the Appalachian region really wanted.”

Ziliak adds that the appetite for funding the ARC decreased after the first five years, weakening the federal commitment to the region. “So, while the War on Poverty did have a positive effect on the region, coupled with the Appalachian Commission, presumably the effect would have been stronger still had the investment been more focused,” he says.

Roads, Sewers and Jobs

The architects of both the War on Poverty and Appalachian Regional Commission believed in investing in infrastructure as well as people. Many of the ARC’s most high-profile projects were the construction of roads, bridges and dams.

These policies also spurred projects that were less visible but still valuable. In the mid-1960s, outreach workers from one of the War on Poverty’s community action agencies — a Roanoke, Va.-based organization now known as Total Action for Progress — surveyed low-income residents in the surrounding rural areas to identify pressing needs. Access to safe drinking water was a paramount problem. In response, the community agency designed a program to help residents develop and finance community water systems.

The successful Virginia program caught the attention of federal policymakers and became national in the 1970s. But the connection between poverty and underperforming water utilities endures. Today, many low-income areas face mounting needs for investment in town sewers. Hope Cupit, CEO of the southeastern program, says that while many older water systems are due for expensive repairs, a number of rural communities have seen their populations drop. As a result, there are fewer community tax dollars to finance the needed upgrades.

Though government agencies are still making specific investments in the region’s hardware, such as installing broadband internet cable, programs that focus on individual needs are becoming more of a priority. Tony Wilder, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Local Government, also serves as the liaison between the Kentucky governor’s office and the Appalachian Regional Commission. He says the ARC and states like Kentucky are shifting their attention to what policymakers call “human capital.”

With several eastern Kentucky counties suffering from prolonged double-digit unemployment, the focus has shifted to education and job training. “I feel the main role of ARC resources is to diversify the economy and create some new jobs and keep those folks in eastern Kentucky if we can,” Wilder says.

The current spotlight on employment represents more of a shift than a wholly new approach. Ziliak estimates that since its inception, the ARC has devoted about half of its investments to people-focused projects such as community health and job training centers. He says that when the impact of other War on Poverty programs such as food stamps and Medicaid are factored in, more was spent on people than infrastructure.

Taking Community Action

In the Roanoke Valley, the community action agency Total Action for Progress, Inc., takes a multi-pronged approach to the fight against poverty, in some cases building homes and job skills in the same breath. Through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity to construct and renovate affordable homes, TAP’s YouthBuild program helps students who have dropped out of school earn a GED, work experience, and a pre-apprenticeship certification in green construction. Other TAP endeavors range from providing adult literacy classes and support for victims of domestic violence to job-placement services for veterans and weatherization of low-income homes.

As with many community action agencies, TAP began by offering Head Start. The organization served 100 Head Start students in 1965; today, TAP serves 9,000 residents. Annette Lewis, a TAP director who has been with the organization for 25 years, says services such as the re-entry program for young offenders are in keeping with the community action agency’s original goal: providing a “hand-up” to those in need.

In Virginia, students learn about construction safety through YouthBuild, a program provided by the local community action agency. Photo courtesy Total Action for Progress, Inc.

In Virginia, students learn about construction safety through YouthBuild, a program provided by the local community action agency. Photo courtesy Total Action for Progress, Inc.

Lewis describes the idea of winning a war on poverty as being very ambitious, noting that environmental, health and infrastructure problems all play a role in an individual’s economic circumstance. “I don’t think we can win a war on poverty unless everybody is committed to doing that, every system, not just community action,” she says. “Because life happens, you’re going to have poor people. And some are going to be poor because of mistakes they’ve made and some are going to be poor just because of the hand they’ve been given.”

Across the country, community action agencies such as TAP and Mountain Projects are seeking creative funding sources to make up the difference lost by federal and state budget cuts. TAP is pursuing special tax credits to help fund affordable housing development and small-business loans, and this winter Mountain Projects partnered with a local credit union and other organizations for a “Million Coin Campaign” to help offset the burden of high heating bills for those in need.
“I have a strong philosophy from my life and my experiences that if you go into any Head Start classroom in this country or any public school and you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, they don’t say poor,” says Patsy Dowling. “Those children have hopes and dreams and somewhere along the way those don’t come to fruition. And so we have to constantly look at how can we help them meet those hopes and dreams.”

Connecting the Dots of the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Matt Kirk

Matt Kirk stands at Rocky Top on the Appalachian Trail while thru hiking SALT. Photo courtesy Matt Kirk

Matt Kirk stands at Rocky Top on the Appalachian Trail while thru hiking SALT. Photo courtesy Matt Kirk

What unites many of us in the Southern Appalachians is a love for hiking along the hundreds of miles of trails in our region. Ten years ago, I discovered that many of these paths form a loop measuring over 350 miles in length. Pieced together, this route, known as the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail or SALT, is currently 99.4 percent complete. With the exception of a sliver of undeveloped land on the state line between North Carolina and South Carolina in Transylvania County, it’s already open to the public for hiking.

As a loop, you can start and finish at just about any point along the way and hike back around to where you started. The route highlights the beauty of the Southern Appalachians, from its staggering biodiversity and abundance of waterfalls cascading down from the Blue Ridge Escarpment to the high-elevation spruce forests and panoramic mountain balds in the Smokies. Several connecting trails afford each hiker an opportunity to choose his or her own adventure throughout the mountains of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

In the summer of 2012, I thru-hiked SALT, starting and ending at Jones Gap State Park in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area of South Carolina. I hiked in a clockwise direction towards Georgia, along the Foothills Trail. After crossing the Chattooga River, I climbed ever higher over the Georgia mountains, into North Carolina, through the town of Franklin, and eventually joined the Appalachian Trail. At Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in Tennessee, I ventured onto the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and back through Brevard towards South Carolina.

In preparation for my journey, I started with a big picture and then fine-tuned the details for my adventure by consulting guidebooks, maps, websites and knowledgeable staff from local outfitters. I completed my journey in ten days, but a month would be better for a hike of this duration.

Rhododendron blossoms line a route near the intersection of the Art Loeb and Mountains-to-Sea Trails. Photo courtesy Matt Kirk

Rhododendron blossoms line a route near the intersection of the Art Loeb and Mountains-to-Sea Trails. Photo courtesy Matt Kirk

Even at my blistering pace, this walk brought me closer to the sights, sounds and smells of a wonderful, living temperate rainforest. For days, I enjoyed the sound of songbirds and the fragrance of the wildflowers as I watched for newts, snails, and yes, one rattlesnake along the trail. Although physically depleted, I returned both mentally and spiritually charged with a renewed appreciation for our region.

The trickiest section resides in Transylvania County where a road detour is necessary to bypass the missing link. Here, a proposed trail could join DuPont State Recreational Forest in North Carolina and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area in South Carolina, bridging 24,000 acres of protected land. Measuring roughly two miles long, this connecting trail would also help to protect the propagation of local flora and provide a wildlife corridor for many animals.

The DuPont Connector, as it’s called, is a focus project of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, a western North Carolina land trust dedicated to protecting the region’s natural resources. Since 1994, CMLC has protected more than 27,000 acres of natural lands across the Blue Ridge, including more than 3,000 acres directly buffering DuPont State Recreational Forest. Often, the land trust works with landowners and partners to make many of these protected lands available for public recreation.

In 2013, a year after my thru-hike of SALT, I began a year of service with CMLC through the AmeriCorps Project Conserve program with a motivation to help move the DuPont Connector project forward. During my service with CMLC, I’ve been encouraged by the enthusiastic feedback from local residents and hikers about the concept of SALT. Thanks in large part to the work of a handful of organizations responsible for the creation of the Palmetto, Foothills, Bartram, Appalachian, Mountains-to-Sea and other regional trails, the route is close to completion.

My hike inspired me to encourage others to explore this amazing region rather than drive or fly to a far-away place. I strongly believe that this loop could soon become a popular hike for many throughout the country. And as hikers venture through the scenic mountains of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, they will inevitably visit and patronize the businesses in the towns that SALT passes through along the way, including Brevard, Cherokee and Franklin, N.C.

You can help make SALT a reality by joining or volunteering with organizations involved with the construction and maintenance of the route. Visit these organizations at: carolinamountain.org, palmettoconservation.org, foothillstrail.org, gabartramtrail.org, ncbartramtrail.org, appalachiantrail.org and ncmst.org.

HH_map

An overview poster of the SALT map is now available from carolinamountain.org/gear with all proceeds going towards the completion of the route in Transylvania County.

An overview poster of the SALT map is now available from carolinamountain.org/gear with all proceeds going towards the completion of the route in Transylvania County.

Court Strikes Down Bush-era Water Rule for Coal Mines

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Molly Moore

In February, a U.S. district court struck down the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule, which loosened stream protections near mountaintop removal mining sites, declaring it violated the Endangered Species Act.

Senior Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement wrongfully proceeded with the environmentally harmful rule even when faced with clear evidence that mining operations near streams endanger sensitive wildlife and water resources.

Rothstein’s decision restores the 1983 Reagan administration rule which had established a more environmentally sound buffer zone around waterways to prevent debris and rubble from coal mining operations from burying streams. The 2008 version signed by President George Bush overwrote the 1983 rule and minimized those protections.

The National Mining Association, which intervened in the case, has not announced whether they will appeal Rothstein’s decision.

The decision will likely not have much immediate impact in Kentucky, Virginia or West Virginia, as the 2008 rule was not enforced in states that manage their own surface mining oversight.

A bill passed by the House of Representatives in March, H.R. 2824, would override the recent court decision and require that all states enforce the 2008 rule. It would also stop the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement from issuing an updated rule called the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency says will reflect updated science and technology and could be a “more protective regulatory strategy.”

The bill is unlikely to be considered in the Senate, and White House officials are prepared to recommend a presidential veto, stating that the proposed legislation “does not adequately address the community, environmental, and health impacts of strip mining.”

Energy Efficiency Offers Promise of Lower Electric Bills

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell

Even as residential energy efficiency improves, the impact of home energy costs on low-income families in the Southeast has become more severe since the turn of the century, according to a report by Appalachian Voices.

The report, titled “Poverty and the Burden of Electricity Costs in the Southeast,” found that in 2001 the average southern family spent an estimated $1,500 on energy. By 2009, average energy costs had increased to more than $2,000.

CMYKER_povertyelectric_map

“As the U.S. marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it’s clear we have a long way to go to truly move the region’s most disadvantaged communities forward, and electric utilities should play a key role in making that happen,” says McIlmoil.

The report claims that rising energy costs can be alleviated if utilities offer their residential customers “on-bill” financing loan programs to make their homes more energy efficient. These programs, which have been successful in states including South Carolina and Kentucky, allow the homeowner to repay a loan over time through installments on their electric bill, while saving money in the short term as they use less electricity.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy also emphasizes the role energy efficiency plays in reducing electricity demand and overall consumption. As recently as the 1990s, electricity sales in the U.S. were growing more than 2 percent annually, but according to the ACEEE, energy efficiency programs and policies have helped reverse that trend over the last decade.

Despite the proven benefits of energy efficiency, however, many power providers across the southeastern United States do not offer efficiency financing options, and upfront costs to make efficiency improvements remain a significant barrier to low-income families.

A small percentage of utilities in the Southeast, particularly large investor-owned utilities, offer comprehensive loan programs. But according to McIlmoil, only one out of eight residents in the region has access to financing for home energy efficiency.

Appalachian Voices, the organization that publishes The Appalachian Voice, initiated its Energy Savings for Appalachia program in 2013 to shepherd the development of on-bill loan programs through rural electric membership cooperatives while building a broad movement to expand and promote the benefits of energy efficiency.

Learn more at appvoices.org/saveenergy

Appalachian States Debate Hemp Legalization

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Nolen Nychay

The legal hemp farming debate has come to Appalachia. The much-debated Farm Bill President Obama signed into law in February included a “hemp amendment,” which permitted the regulated cultivation of industrial hemp in states that have legalized hemp farming. Hemp is a cash crop in the cannabis family that, despite lacking most of the hallucinogenic THC found in marijuana, has been illegal to grow in the United States since the 1970 Controlled-Substances Act. U.S. imports of hemp and many of its 25,000-plus products, including building materials and biodiesel fuel, have an annual retail value of more than $500 million, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

Kentucky and West Virginia are currently the only Appalachian states with legal hemp farming, the latter restricting it to purely research purposes. Kentucky’s terrain and climate are well-suited for hemp, which contributed to the state being the country’s chief hemp producer during WWII. Kentucky plans to capitalize on the new law and initiate five hemp research programs that will identify medicinal uses, seeds best-suited for the region, prospective costs and logistics of a new hemp market, and whether hemp could effectively be used to remove ground contaminants from industrial sites. “We’re ahead at something that relates to economic development for once, so let’s pursue it,” said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer in a USA Today article.

Other Appalachian states are close behind. The South Carolina State Senate unanimously passed a bill in March proposing to legalize industrial hemp — a State House vote is expected later this spring. Legislation is also under review in Tennessee, and as of press time had passed subcommittees in both the State House and State Senate and is awaiting committee approval. “Our motivation for doing this comes from the desire to bring jobs back from other countries right back to Tennessee,” said Tenn. State Representative Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) to news media company The Examiner.

W.Va. Bill to Support Veterans in Agriculture

By Kelsey Boyajian

In March, the West Virginia House and Senate passed a bill to create the Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program. According to State Senator Ronald Miller (D-Greenbrier), many returned veterans from active duty struggle to find employment.

Once signed into law by the governor, the program will provide veterans with opportunities for agricultural training in hopes of job creation, and up to 15 acres of land from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture for instruction.

Cherokee Tribe Works to Replenish Deer Population

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Kelsey Boyajian

On the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation’s Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina, white-tailed deer are a rare species. The population was depleted in the late eighteenth century during the peak of the fur trade, but today, efforts are being made to restore the deer population — plentiful in the rest of western North Carolina — on tribal lands. Historically, the tribe valued deer for hunting, trading and folklore connections.

The tribe’s 5,130-acre territory just south of the Great Smoky Mountains is full of mature forests with little undergrowth for deer to eat. Prescribed burns and tree thinning will be used in order to create a more hospitable environment. The Cherokee tribe, partnering with state and federal agencies, is hoping to successfully release more than 50 white-tailed deer into the boundary by the end of 2014.

Mining Away Appalachian Well-Being

By Kelsey Boyajian

For the sixth year in a row, regions with significant mountaintop removal mining operations were identified as among the nation’s most unhappy areas by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Created in 2008 to measure emotional and physical health by state, the annual survey is based on more than 175,000 personal interviews across the country.

Nationwide, most mountaintop removal occurs in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. The largest operations are in Kentucky and West Virginia which ranked 49th and 50th, respectively, for overall well-being, while Tennessee placed 44th and Virginia 24th. Yet Virginia’s 9th district — which covers the bulk of southwest Virginia where mountaintop removal takes place —scored 398th out of 434 districts nationwide.

Mountaintop removal is connected to many environmental and health concerns, such as contaminated drinking water and poor air quality. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Community Health, researchers found that “The odds for reporting cancer were twice as high in the mountaintop mining environment compared to the non-mining environment in ways not explained by age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure or family cancer history.”

Volunteering Across the Region

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by meredith

AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps is one of three core programs of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that calls upon local communities for volunteer opportunities. AmeriCorps programs include disaster relief, anti-poverty efforts and general community support, as well as various state and local programs. Appalachia boasts numerous AmeriCorps service opportunities that benefit the greater community. Service terms offer a living stipend, and vary from part-time to full-time, and from seasonal to year-round. Below is a partial listing of some environmentally-focused AmeriCorps programs offered in central and southern Appalachia. To learn more about AmeriCorps opportunities throughout the United States, visit nationalservice.govE. Zupo

Project Conserve

Serve with nonprofits and community groups to support conservation and environmental stewardship in western North Carolina. This 11-month program focuses on land and energy conservation, water quality, local food and farmland. Member activities range from leading hikes and environmental education programs to weatherizing low-income homes, conducting water quality testing and assisting landowners who want to protect their land from development. Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, also hosts two AmeriCorps Project Conserve members. Visit carolinamountain.org/projectconserve E. Zupo

Ohio Stream Restore Corps

To better serve the environmental needs of the Ohio Appalachian region, the former Rural Action Watersheds AmeriCorps program was renamed and expanded to include three new branches of service in 2011: Environmental Education, Zero Waste and Trail Maintenance/Access. Programs focus on exposing youth to outdoor learning, creating and improving trails, cleaning illegal dump sites and educating the public on local recycling options. Service terms last 12 months. Visit ruralaction.orgE. Zupo

OSMRE/VISTA Appalachian Coal Country Team:
As part of a partnership between AmeriCorps Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and VISTA programs, the Appalachian Coal Country Team serves in low-income communities struggling with stream contamination, depressed economies and other issues. Members serve at more than 37 sites throughout Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. Activities include grassroots organizing, supporting environmental stewardship and collaborating with local businesses. Service terms last 12 months. Visit coalcountryteam.org or call April Trent at 304-252-4848 E. Zupo

Appalachian Transition Fellowship
This program provides emerging leaders with the opportunity to help preserve the beauty and health of central Appalachia while promoting the economic transition of the region from harmful industries to sustainable practices. Appalachian Fellows live and work in host communities, providing outreach, mentoring and training while fostering partnerships that help develop economically just solutions. Fellowships are a year-long paid commitment, with placement potential in the Appalachian regions of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and North Carolina. Visit appfellows.orgE. Zupo

Society of St. Andrews

Help those in need and curb food waste by joining the Society of St. Andrews’ gleaning network. Gleaning is the traditional practice of gathering leftover crops from farmers’ fields after harvest. The food is distributed to local food pantries. This idea is promoted in the Bible and inspires the mission of the society, but people of any faith are welcome to join. Volunteers of all ages accepted. Get involved! Visit endhunger.orgE. Zupo

Senior Corps

Senior Corps works to help citizens 55 years or older share their valuable life experience and skills with the community. Programs include: Foster Grandparents, which provides mentoring and tutoring to children and young mothers; RSVP, which includes assistance to those affected by natural disasters and mentoring troubled youth; and Senior Companions, which provides companionship to adults who have difficulty living independently. Get involved! Visit nationalservice.gov/programs/senior-corpsE. Zupo

2014 Races to Watch

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell and Thom Kay

The November 2014 elections are months away, but the figurative starting gun has been fired and the horse-race coverage has begun. To both parties this midterm may seem especially significant. Halfway through President Obama’s second term, some Republicans believe their party is poised to take over the Senate.

Democrats currently have a 55-45 majority, but the party’s incumbents are under fire for standing by President Obama through the most turbulent period of his presidency. Meanwhile, several sitting Republicans will have to make it past a primary challenge by far-right candidates. In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (234-198), the Democratic party’s highest hope is to keep their caucus intact, picking up seats where they can.

As the midterms approach, here are eight regional races worth keeping an eye on — for their careful (and clumsy) campaign strategies, the millions spent on attack ads, and their implications for Appalachia’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Senate – Kentucky

KentuckySenate

Mitch McConnell was first elected as a U.S. Senator 30 years ago and is currently the minority leader, the highest position for a Republican in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Considering that Mitt Romney won in Kentucky in 2012 by a staggering 23 percent, it would seem the only possible threat to McConnell’s re-election would be in the Republican primary from a field of challengers that includes businessman Matt Bevin.

But his real opposition comes from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes won her bid to become Kentucky’s Secretary of State by a huge margin in 2012. Now, however, she faces the difficult task of separating herself from Democratic congressional leadership and the White House.

A recent poll by the Louisville Courier-Journal had Grimes leading McConnell, who, according to the same poll, is slightly less popular than President Obama in the boldly red Bluegrass State.

U.S. Senate – North Carolina

NCSenate

In one of the most contested and costly Senate races in the country, a field of challengers are keeping first-term Sen. Kay Hagan and the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on their toes.

In the lead-up to the May 6 primary, the two GOP frontrunners — Thom Tillis, an influential state legislator, and Tea Party conservative Dr. Greg Brannon — have mostly been busy criticizing each other rather than Hagan.

That role has so far fallen to outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity and others supported by the billionaire Koch brothers, who have already spent more than $8 million on anti-Hagan ads. A spokesperson for Hagan called the Koch-backed efforts a “baseless smear campaign” from a group that “doesn’t speak for North Carolinians.”

North Carolina may be the epicenter for the GOP’s efforts to take control of the Senate, but some progressives are also sour on Hagan’s record due to her prominent support of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. An Elon University poll released on March 3 found that just one-third of registered voters in North Carolina approve of Hagan’s job performance.

U.S. Senate – Tennessee

TennSenate

Sen. Lamar Alexander’s seat is solidly Republican — even Democratic strategists say the second-term senator is more likely to be defeated in the Aug. 7 primary challenge than be unseated by a Democrat such as challenger Terry Adams, who recently declared his candidacy.

That may be why Tennessee State Rep. Joe Carr decided to enter the race last August. “[Alexander] is popular, but there is a disconnect with his popularity to the way he has voted,” Carr said upon announcing his candidacy. The race in Tennessee provides a look at how opposition aimed at moderate Republicans from the party’s far-right wing has been increasing. Last year, a letter from the Tennessee Tea Party urged Alexander, a former governor and two-term presidential candidate, to “retire with dignity.”

In his response, Alexander said he would rather stick around, because “Washington needs more, not fewer, conservatives who know how to govern.”

A recent poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University found that 47 percent of self-identified Republicans favored Alexander in the primary. Just 7 percent favored Carr and 4 percent wanted “someone else.”

U.S. Senate – Virginia

VASenate

Democrats considered Sen. Mark Warner’s seat safe until Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, entered the race. Warner, a rumored presidential contender, has been in the Senate since 2009. Gillespie has so far focused his campaign on health care and the economy. He has never held elective office, but nevertheless has the credentials and the fundraising experience from decades of advising GOP politicians to represent a serious challenge to Warner. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University at the end of March, however, found Warner with a 15-point advantage over Gillespie.

U.S. Senate – West Virginia

WestVaSenate

Between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, West Virginia saw a monumental swing toward the Republican Party. Of the 3,410 counties in the United States, Boone County, W.Va., saw the largest pro-Republican swing, approximately 42 percent. Suddenly, five-term senator and incumbent Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, seemed vulnerable. In November 2012, U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito announced she would run for Rockefeller’s seat. Two months later, Rockefeller announced he would not seek re-election. As of the end of March, Capito had a double-digit lead over the Democratic candidate, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. If she replaces Rockefeller, Capito will be the first Republican elected to represent West Virginia in the Senate since 1956. Either would be the state’s first female senator.

U.S. House – Kentucky’s 3rd District

KYRace

Louisville, Ky., native Rep. John Yarmuth joined Congress in 2007 after defeating Republican incumbent Anne Northup. In September 2013, Yarmuth joined the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, putting him in the middle of debates concerning environmental and energy policy.

This year, Yarmuth faces a challenge from Dr. Michael MacFarlane, a Louisville-based physician critical of the Obama administration’s health care initiative. MacFarlane is popular for his financial support of state and federal Republican candidates, but he must overcome his party’s losing record from the last three elections to bring Kentucky’s 3rd district back into Republican control.

U.S House – Virginia’s 10th District

VaHouse

When Rep. Frank Wolf announced he would not be running for an 18th term late last year, attention from both parties shifted to northern Virginia’s 10th District. A wide field of Republicans, including Virginia State Delegate Barbara Comstock, are vying for a primary win come April, while Democrats plan to nominate a candidate from their party’s pool — which includes Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust — ahead of the primary, to bolster their chances of winning the long Republican-held seat.

According to the Rothenberg Political Report, after Virginia’s redistricting in 2012, the 10th district is competitive but remains slightly Republican.

U.S. House – West Virginia’s 3rd District

WVA3rdDistrict

Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat, has won 19 straight congressional elections, and while his margin of victory has shrunk in the past few races, he still managed to win somewhat comfortably in 2010 and 2012.

This year, however, may be different. Republicans have gradually made headway in southern West Virginia, where voters have strongly rejected President Obama. Republican strategists and outside groups have made Rahall a top target, dumping millions into attack ads attempting to tie Rahall to Democratic leadership and President Obama. State Sen. Evan Jenkins, formerly a Democrat, is the runaway favorite for the Republican nomination.