Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Regional Commission’

Budget Blowback

Thursday, April 13th, 2017 - posted by interns

White House Blueprint takes aim at the environment and assistance to low-income Americans

By Brian Sewell

Front page news

Many regional news outlets focused on how proposed budget cuts could affect Appalachia. Photo courtesy Charleston Gazette-Mail

On March 15, President Donald Trump took the stage at a rally in Nashville, Tenn. Befitting the campaign-style event, he opened with familiar, crowd-tested applause lines.

“It’s patriotic Americans like you who make this country run, and run well,” the president told his supporters. “All you want is a government that shows you the same loyalty in return.”

The next morning, the White House would unveil the blueprint of its proposed 2018 budget, giving Americans a first look at the administration’s priorities in fiscal form. At the rally that evening, in between pledges to build a border wall and save the coal industry, Trump promised that his budget would “shrink the bloated federal bureaucracy.”

When the document was released, its vision of America and the role of the federal government was hardly recognizable. The “America First” budget — as it has been coined by the White House — would offset a $54 billion boost to the military and national security by cutting the same amount from domestic, non-defense spending. Nearly 20 agencies and dozens of programs would be axed altogether.

Responses flooded in from politicians and advocacy groups of every stripe. Some criticized the administration’s disregard for public support of the arts and sciences, including medical research. Other reactions focused on the irony that Trump wants to eliminate programs that benefit Americans in the areas that helped him win the White House. The budget would wipe out decades-old anti-poverty programs and newer efforts to create jobs in communities that are struggling economically, like many in Appalachia and the Rust Belt.

On the day after the blueprint’s rollout, the front page of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, led with the headline “Trump’s budget slams West Virginia.” The Roanoke Times ran an editorial titled “Trump backhands Appalachia” that reflected on the region’s support for the president and mused, “Trump has an odd way of returning the favor.”

Although Congress controls federal spending, the White House’s so-called “skinny budget” is the clearest picture congressional lawmakers have yet of the president’s priorities. It could have been something positive for Trump to stump on. But a few days after the Nashville event, when the president held an almost identical rally in Louisville, Ky., he decided not to mention it.

Appalachia Loses Out

Some of the blueprint’s uncompromising cuts to programs in rural areas raised the question: where did these ideas even come from? In February, the Heritage Foundation, a think tank with close ties to the Trump administration, put forward its own wish list for the federal budget. Both the official blueprint and Heritage’s “Blueprint for Balance” prescribe many of the same cuts and provide similar justifications for them.

“Heritage was the number one source,” Stephen Moore, a Heritage Foundation economist who advised the Trump campaign, told The Washington Post. “That was partly because there wasn’t a lot of time. They decided ‘we will get rid of this, and get rid of that.’”

One puzzling cut in the White House blueprint that can’t be traced back to any of Trump’s numerous promises is the elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency that invests in workforce training and infrastructure needs like broadband. The Heritage blueprint also calls for doing away with it. While the White House does not explain why the commission is on the chopping block, the Heritage Foundation describes it as “duplicative carve out” that “diverts federal funding to projects of questionable merit.”

Members of Congress were quick to defend the commission and its accomplishments. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) called the proposed cuts “draconian, careless and counterproductive.”

“Today, nearly everyone in the region has access to clean water and sewer, the workforce is diversifying, educational opportunities are improving and rural technology is finally advancing to 21st-century standards,” Rogers said in a statement. “But there is more work to be done in these communities.”

Since October 2015 alone, the Appalachian Regional Commission has invested more than $175 million in 662 projects throughout the region. Around $75 million of that has supported initiatives to diversify local economies that have long relied on coal mining and now hope to attract new industries.

The Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia received a grant to scale up its workforce development model and expand to other counties. The group Friends of Southwest Virginia is using commission funds to create community access points along the New River that will enhance the region’s ecotourism industry. Those projects and hundreds of others are projected to create or retain thousands of jobs and leverage nearly $142 million in private dollars into the region’s economy.

Around the same time, coal production in eastern Kentucky fell to a level not seen since the Great Depression, Appalachian states shed thousands of coal mining jobs and the nation’s three largest coal companies fell into bankruptcy, largely due to the growth of natural gas and the falling demand for coal globally.

Trump won 400 out of the 420 counties in which the Appalachian Regional Commission operates partly on the promise that he’ll “bring the coal industry back 100 percent,” which policymakers and energy experts accept is an impossibility. The president’s congressional counterparts are ready for him to expand on his message to Appalachia.

“It’s true that the president won his election in rural country,” Rep. Rogers told Reuters. “I would really like to see him climb aboard [the Appalachian Regional Commission] vehicle as a way to help us help ourselves.”

Climate and Energy in the Crosshairs

Even many expected cuts are deeper than anticipated. It comes as no surprise that a candidate who called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “a disgrace” would target the agency’s resources in addition to rolling back environmental rules. But the blueprint calls for gutting EPA funding by nearly one-third and eliminating approximately 3,200 positions, making it the hardest hit of any federal agency.

EPA initiatives ranging from the Chesapeake Bay restoration program to the Clean Power Plan would be zeroed out. Funding for the enforcement of federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act would be reduced with the unrealistic expectation that states would pick up the slack.

According to an analysis by the North Carolina Sierra Club, federal dollars pay for almost half of the state’s multi-million responsibilities under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. If North Carolina or any other state lost those funds, it would likely weaken programs that, in some cases, have also been cut by state budget-makers.

The EPA’s work to research and respond to climate change is also targeted, as is the climate-related work of other agencies including the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. When asked about the reason for those cuts during a White House press briefing, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said “we consider that to be a waste of your money.”

In another ironic twist related to the coal industry and its future, the White House wants to cut the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the Office of Fossil Energy, which researches carbon capture technologies — the closest America has to anything resembling “clean coal.”

A week after the budget was announced, 35 Senate Democrats wrote a letter to their colleagues calling the Trump administration’s pledge to protect clean air and water “meaningless,” considering the proposed cuts to the EPA.

“There is already bipartisan agreement that President Trump’s harmful budget will be a nonstarter in Congress,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who added his name to the letter, said in a statement.

“Dead on Arrival”

In a time of historic political polarization, the unpopularity of ideas in the blueprint transcends the partisan divide. Weeks before all the details were known, as rumors swirled about massive cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) described the White House’s budget as “dead on arrival.”

According to a March poll by Quinnipiac University, most Americans would be fine with that — for any number of reasons. Sixty-seven percent of respondents oppose cuts to federal climate research and environmental programs. Nearly three-quarters of those polled are “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about climate change and 59 percent say the United States should do more to address it.

“When it comes to cutting Public TV, the arts, after school programs and scientific research to improve the environment, it’s a stern ‘hands off’ from voters,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, in a release announcing the results.

The White House will send its full 2018 budget to Congress later this spring. In the meantime, Congress must address federal spending for the rest of this year before the current resolution to continue funding the government expires on April 28. But, when it comes to Trump’s brazen approach, the White House’s budget office Director Mick Mulvaney says “folks who voted for the president are getting exactly what they voted for.”

Uncompromising Cuts

The Appalachian region would take a hit if cuts to numerous national programs that benefit rural or low-income Americans were to go into effect. The following are just a few of the agencies and programs not mentioned in this article that would be eliminated:
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports nearly 1,500 locally owned public radio and television stations nationwide.
— The Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds AmeriCorps and other national service initiatives.
Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal aid to low-income Americans.
— The Energy Department’s State Energy Program, which assists states in improving energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy.
— The Energy Department’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which makes grants to state and local governments to provide home weatherization services to those in need.
— The Department of Health and Human Services’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps families afford their energy bills and minor energy-related home repairs.
— The Department of Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund grants, which leverages private capital by investing in economic development in communities where it’s most needed.

ARC Develops New Community Capital Bank to Invest in Appalachia

Friday, August 23rd, 2013 - posted by molly

By Chelsey Fisher

The Appalachian Regional Commission opened a new bank called Appalachian Community Capital in June to increase loans and other capital that small businesses in Appalachia receive.

Industry analyses have shown that over the past several years, banks across the nation have instituted tighter credit requirements for small-business lending and reduced their risk-taking ability. Combined with the tough ongoing economic environment, it remains difficult for business owners in some parts of Appalachia to receive loans.

Appalachian businesses, on average, receive 82 percent of the money from loans that comparable businesses receive outside of the region, while businesses in Appalachia’s economically distressed counties receive less than 60 percent of the loans of their national counterparts.

“There’s a stigma in Appalachia that says, ‘You’re profoundly rural, you’re profoundly uneducated and you’re remote, and we’re not going to spend the time to get in there and provide you the financing,’” Ray Moncrie, a creditor who gave $6 million to the new bank, told The Charleston Gazette.

The Appalachian Regional Commission made the first investment into this bank, donating $3.45 million of equity. Through partnerships, ARC hopes to add another $39 million of equity.

In the next 24 months, ARC hopes to add $233 million in private capital to create 2,200 jobs in 13 states, and help the bank make a business plan and become a not-for-profit entity.
The Appalachian Regional Commission is an economic development agency that works in 13 Appalachian states. Its goal is to improve infrastructure, add jobs, and help Appalachia compete in a global economy.

W.Va. Faith Leaders Hold Day of Prayer for Creation Care

On July 30, 2013, faith and community leaders in West Virginia joined together to call for measures to reduce carbon pollution and clean up the state’s waterways, which are threatened by mercury and selenium pollution.
“There is no time to delay, as the health and well-being of our children is already being affected,” said Rev. Mitch Hescox of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

Participants at the gathering in Morgantown emphasized their moral responsibility to West Virginia’s children to clean up the environment.

“As a pro-life Republican, let me add that we must set aside partisanship and come together to protect God’s creation from climate change,” said Rev. Hescox. “American ingenuity can help us cut down on pollution, champion energy efficiency and create the next generation of jobs while protecting our kids from harm.”

Agritourism Grows in Appalachia

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013 - posted by interns

By Brian Sewell

Appalachian farmers are developing new ways to connect people  to the farm, including tours that provide guests with opportunities to get up close to farm animals like bison. Photo by Jillian Randel

Appalachian farmers are developing new ways to connect people to the farm, including tours that provide guests with opportunities to get up close to farm animals like bison. Photo by Jillian Randel

Think of it as an extended growing season, where the opportunities arising from a region’s agricultural wisdom and the influx of tourists and conscious consumers are ripe for the picking. By marketing experience and education, not just products, Appalachian farms of every kind are going beyond the friendly transactions at the farmers market to take advantage of all that agritourism has to offer.

Abundant examples of agritourism — broadly, any recreational or educational activity that attracts visitors to farms — can be found throughout Appalachia. In fact, it’s one of the region’s largest draws. Here, families frequent pick-your-own berry farms, apple orchards abound and kids clutch the perfect pumpkin on a hayride to nowhere.

In Virginia alone, income from agritourism and farm-related recreation grew an average of 37 percent each year between 2002 and 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the success story of agritourism in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where it generates an estimated $35 million a year thanks to a high concentration of farms catering to residents of the commonwealth and beyond, is a case study in taking what Appalachia does best and making it better.

Nearby Charlottesville, Va., has been recognized as a top spot for agritourism with its bustling downtown City Market and century-old Carter Mountain Orchard, where rolling hills are covered with resplendent apple and peach trees — a picker’s delight.

Western North Carolina, well-known for its wineries, bed and breakfasts and popular stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway, is especially aware of possibilities. The results of a 2011 agritourism survey by North Carolina State University reveal the variety of activities, from yoga practiced in pastures to corporate trainings with rooster wake-up calls, taking place at farms in the state’s mountainous counties.

Word-of-mouth remains a powerful marketing tool for full-time farmers too busy to conduct consistent outreach. But more than half of the respondents to the N.C. State survey identified promotion and marketing as a challenge to getting their agritourism operation off the ground.

Fortunately, county extension offices and chambers of commerce are keeping regional agritourism opportunities in the public consciousness and on tourist’s to-do lists. Collaborations between tourism departments and nonprofits such as the Appalachian Quilt Trail connect multiple destinations and provide a new way to explore the region. And groups such as the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which publishes an annual local food guide covering 60 counties in the Southern Appalachians, act as invaluable intermediaries between farms and consumers.

In late 2012, understanding the importance of networking the agricultural attractions in the region, the Appalachian Regional Commission announced plans to release a guide in spring 2014 to showcase Appalachia’s food heritage and agritourism offerings, including everything from farm-to-table restaurants to food-related events and festivals.
Finding agritourism opportunities has never been easier. So pick a place and experience all Appalachia has to offer.

A Double-Edged Sword

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 - posted by molly

Outsourcing Appalachia’s Furniture Industry

By Jesse Wood

A sign in Buckhannon, W.Va., advertises two lumber-dependent industries — furniture and undertaking. Photo by Bill Herndon

The expansion of global markets and its effect on Appalachia has been a lopsided, double-edged sword, particularly for the furniture and lumber industries.

While exposure to foreign markets has checked inflation and opened the door to an array of new customers, it has crippled the Appalachian furniture manufacturing workforce because of cheaper labor overseas.

In North Carolina, which is home to High Point, the “Furniture Capital of the World,” employment for the industry peaked in 1990 with nearly 100,000 laborers. According to North Carolina State University’s Furniture Manufacturing and Management Center, state-wide employment has declined every year since 1999, and as of 2012, the industry employed less than 38,000 workers.

“What we have seen is a real tsunami hitting us,” says Urs Buehlmann, an associate professor at Virginia Tech. “I am pretty sure there are towns that lost 70 to 80 percent of the jobs they had. It has been disastrous for certain parts of Appalachia.”

Although the worldwide recession has contributed to job losses in recent years, Buehlmann said furniture ghost towns in Henry County, Va., such as Bassett, Stanleytown and the city of Martinsville, which has had one of the country’s highest unemployment rates for years, illustrate “the destructive powers of globalization.”

Since 2000, seven large furniture-manufacturing plants in Henry County closed, eliminating nearly 1,800 jobs, according to Furniture Today, a quarterly industry publication. During that same time span, more than 40 furniture plants, employing nearly 8,000 workers, closed in the state.

Stanley Furniture was among the most recent closings in Henry County. At the end of 2010, the plant’s 530 employees were laid off as management moved production to Southeast Asia.

“If you are managing Stanley Furniture, you probably have no problem with globalization. You may have to travel more nowadays, but you still have your job,” Buehlmann says. “But on the other hand, if you’re the mill hand at Stanley – well, you just lost your job.”

In the fall of 1993, the U.S. Congress ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement, the world’s largest and perhaps most controversial agreement of its kind. The trade deal reduced barriers to U.S. exports, making it easier and cheaper to ship out products and services while protecting U.S. interests abroad.

The results were devastating for the nation’s manufacturing workforce, as the free trade agreement offered financial incentives for companies to outsource factories to Mexico. Layoffs in Appalachia were out of proportion to the rest of the country.

Appalachia USA delegates attended the 2012 Furniture Manufacturing and Supply China trade fair in Shanghai in September. Photo courtesy of the Appalachian Regional Council

According to a Commission on Religion in Appalachia report, “Studies of NAFTA-related job losses [show] that 766,030 actual and potential jobs were lost between 1993 and 2000, and of these losses, 279,141 — or 36 percent — occurred in Appalachian states.”

But NAFTA didn’t have that severe of an impact on the furniture industry, Buehlmann says, because those jobs didn’t move to Canada and Mexico. He added that the 157-country World Trade Organization “had a much more profound impact on the furniture industry” as companies sought low-wage workers in China, Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia.

Scott Hercik, Export Trade Advisory Council coordinator for the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency, says that while free trade has imposed “challenges” on the furniture industry, it has had a “very positive impact” on the lumber markets of Appalachia.

The lumber industry, for one, fared better than furniture manufacturers in the face of foreign markets because of Appalachia’s unique, renowned hardwoods. Free trade agreements such as NAFTA assisted domestic lumber companies in selling more products to foreign customers, reviving the lumber market even as its number one buyer — the U.S. furniture industry — fell on hard times.

Tom Inman, president of Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Inc., a 200-member trade association, says that the export market for Appalachian hardwoods continues to “grow substantially,” and the biggest importers of regional lumber are Canada, China and Europe.

In response to the expanding global economy, the Appalachian Regional Commission created Appalachia USA in 2005. The initiative was designed to help Appalachian businesses establish and sustain trade partnerships in the largest, fastest growing markets in the world. Since its inception, the program has generated between $250 million and $500 million in new export sales for more than 200 Appalachian businesses at global trade shows.

Although the unemployed furniture workers in Henry County wouldn’t notice, Mike Padjen, vice president of international sales for North Carolina-based Klaussner Furniture, says the U.S. furniture industry is actually experiencing a renaissance.

For the past two years, the demand for U.S. furniture has increased as the emerging middle class in countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China are earning more money and demanding customized, higher-quality furniture.

Unfinished parts await assembly at The Hickory Chair Furniture Co. in Hickory, N.C. Photo by Cassandra LaVelle of coco+kelley,

“I see it continuing to open up. I mean, the world is going to drive this a lot,” Padjen says, adding that as the cost of living increases in places like China, the cost of manufacturing will rise, too, and “the efficiency of making product in the U.S. increases.”

Padjen, like Inman and Hercik, agrees that the expansion of global markets has both merits and flaws. All three cite the loss of jobs and closed factories, which Padjen attributes partly to the Great Recession, as the “bad part,” but Padjen also notes the lumber industry’s ability to revive itself through foreign markets and major Asian companies employing workers in North Carolina’s hard-hit furniture industry as the good parts.

Two examples Padjen mentions include Hong Kong-based Samson, one of the largest furniture companies in the world, buying upholstered-furniture maker Craftmasters and employing Americans in Taylorsville, N.C., and China-based Schnadig’s recent partnership with Key City Furniture to manufacture upper-end upholstery furniture in Wilkesboro, N.C. Even in Martinsville, six furniture companies are still operating, employing a fraction of the former workforce.

But Virginia Tech’s Dr. Buehlmann, who is a strong believer in free markets, says he doesn’t see it in “black and white,” and when he visits places like Henry County, he has doubts about the “fairness” of globalization.

“Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be able to even out the score,” Buehlmann says.
For those unemployed millhands in Bassett, Stanleytown and Martinsville, he says, “Scars still exist that won’t go away.”

Sustainable Success

Caperton FurnitureWorks is located in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., and has been for nearly 40 years. While most furniture factories have gone out of business or moved overseas, Caperton is producing high-quality pieces using local wood and local skills for national companies. Demand for American-made furniture is growing, says owner Gat Caperton, and they’re meeting that demand in Central Appalachia.

A proud West Virginian, Caperton sources nearly all of his wood locally, using a lumber mill in nearby Elkins. And the pieces his factory produces aren’t built by machines on an assembly line — each one is put together by hand.

Excerpt from a blog post by Carrie Ray, read more at

Energizing the Clean Economy

Friday, October 14th, 2011 - posted by brian

How Efficiency Creates Jobs and Saves Money

Political speeches, the nightly news and newspaper headlines are filled with reminders of the battered economy and the millions unemployed or underpaid. But as energy efficiency and renewable technologies advance, more domestic jobs are created that foster a sustainable economy, save money at home, and benefit human health and the environment. It’s an ambitious goal, but across Appalachia, many forward-th
inkers and industry leaders have already seen the light.

By Brian Sewell

Mike McKechnie keeps both a lump of coal and a piece of silicon, the main component in solar cells, on his desk.

He knows the direction of the nation’s energy future comes in part from knowing its past. The owner of Mountain View Solar & Wind in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., McKechnie has spent years promoting energy efficiency and the benefits of solar and wind power.

“We’ve always been concerned in giving the consumer education,” McKechnie says. “It helps them manage the utility bill that is so important to them. Once we have their attention, we can show them the energy saving components and translate that to dollars.”

Trainings for green-collar workers are helping create domestic jobs nationwide. Photo courtesy of CREATES

When McKechnie and his wife purchased a home from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in 2005, they began hosting energy efficiency, solar technology and green building trainings in their backyard. “We’re middle class folks,” McKechnie says. “It was our way of showing how people like us can afford an efficient, healthy home.”

Before focusing solely on renewable energy, McKechnie operated Mountain View Builders, using his knowledge of green building practices. “We had our most successful years in 2008 and 2009, when most builders were suffering or completely out of business,” he says. “The reason we were busy is because of the products and services we offered: a healthier place to live that uses significantly less power.”

McKechnie and others give credit to the federal and state incentives, loans and grant programs that encourage homeowners to retrofit their homes and invest in energy efficiency, weatherization and green job training. But in order to keep energy efficiency and clean energy growing, McKechnie says, the tax credits must stay at the consumer level.

Every state has its own tax credits and incentives to motivate energy efficiency. North Carolina residents and businesses receive a 35 percent tax rebate for installing renewable energy systems. In Kentucky’s Appalachian counties, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development offers loans to small and mid-sized businesses, non-profits, schools and municipalities through its Energy Efficient Enterprises program. Tennessee’s Green Energy Tax Credit encourages the clean economy by providing large tax breaks to industries in the clean energy supply chain.

Federal tax credits for energy efficiency also exist, though in smaller amounts than previous years. Home efficiency retrofits, the purchase of many Energy Star-rated appliances and installation of renewable energy all come with incentives put in place by the Department of Energy.

But it was the controversial and oft-criticized American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 that rejuvenated research and investment in clean energy. A total of $27.2 billion was doled out by the Department of Energy, including $5 billion for weatherizing modest-income homes, $300 million for energy efficient appliance rebates. The Department of Labor gave grants of $500 million to fund the training of “green-collar” workers. The Brookings Institute cites that, in addition to creating jobs in a recession, loan programs generated $4 to $8 of private lending for every dollar of public investment and by scaling up important clean energy technologies, began financing the long-term restructuring of the economy.

Photo courtesy of CREATES

Community Housing Partners, a non-profit in Christiansburg, Va. that creates affordable, sustainable housing for low-income families, was awarded $3.8 million through the Recovery Act’s Department of Labor “Energy Training Partnership” grant to provide green job training in emerging industries. From that grant, the Construction, Retrofitting, and Energy-Efficiency Assessment Training and Employment System (CREATES) program began.

Virginia Tech University, a CREATES partner, approached Community Housing Partners prior to applying for the grant to discuss developing training initiatives for workers already involved with or interested in green construction fields.

“Virginia Tech worked with the local community colleges to look at their current construction curriculum,” the employer outreach specialist for CREATES, Jackie Pontious, explains.
Community Housing Partners is then responsible for adding a “green shell” to the curriculum already in place. An example would be a solar energy component added to an electrical engineering course.

“We recognize the need to train them for the needs of today and prepare them for the needs of the future,” Pontious says.

The partnership’s trainings are rooted in a collaboration between community colleges, each specializing in a different aspect of green construction. New River Community College in Dublin, Va. concentrates on Wind and Solar Technology training; Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke focuses on energy management training; Wythesville Community College, located in a town with several contractors, is most fit to train in building compliance. Trainees pursue associates degrees and industry certifications in courses ranging from electrical engineering to weatherization fundamentals. The end goal? A job in the clean economy.

According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Southern states are among the most inefficient in the country.

Pontious identifies employment opportunities for CREATES trainees by meeting with local trade organizations and hosting job fairs with existing green construction firms in southwest Virginia. A CREATES trainee may find work as a weatherization technician with a non-profit like WAMY Community Action, a western North Carolina organization that fights poverty in four counties through grassroots approaches that help people help themselves.

In a recent report, WAMY documented that in the 258 homes they weatherized with support from the Recovery Act, energy costs were reduced by nearly 30 percent annually — a critical difference for families who once spent an average 15 percent of their annual income on energy costs.

But the prolonged success of regional initiatives in the clean economy depends on more than government funding and well-trained workers. Communities suffering from the rising cost of electricity from fossil fuels are also rallying find clean energy solutions.

Rory McIlmoil, a project manager at Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting firm in Alderson, W.Va., is concerned with the need for economic diversification and intelligent approaches to creating a more energy-efficient future in Appalachian coal regions. Using a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, McIlmoil is working with residents of Alderson on a community energy plan to invest in cleaner, more sustainable energy sources and systems.

“My experience in Alderson has proven to me that folks in rural areas are deeply concerned about rising energy costs,” McIlmoil says. “They see the growing impact it has on their disposable income.”

The Alderson plan calls on residents to assist in outlining goals and creating a vision for greening the community, with McIlmoil and Downstream Strategies providing technical support.
“Small towns have small budgets,” says McIlmoil. “But towns like Alderson are a perfect place to focus and plan initiatives. The buildings are aging and utilities costs are rising. There is a lot of opportunity and a willingness on the part of the people and local government.”

Community energy plans are gaining support for sustainable solutions from community members like the Green Team in Alderson, W. Va. Photo courtesy of Downstream Strategies

“I see this growth happening pretty rapidly,” he says. But is it going to help save West Virginia’s economy? I don’t know.”

Across the state, Mike McKechnie shares McIlmoil’s sense of urgency. Collaborating with the Williamson, W.Va.-based JOBS Project on a broad initiative called Sustainable Williamson, McKechnie recently began training local residents, some of whom are second- and third-generation coal miners.

“It’s not an accident that we train coal miners,” McKechnie says. “They want their children to learn about solar and energy efficiency. They know it’s the future. The West Virginia coal miner put the nation on the map during the first industrial revolution. They should get a shot at the next one.”

Industry leaders like Mike McKechnie are defining the clean economy. Photo courtesy of Mountain View Solar

Nick Mullins was a fourth-generation Virginia coal miner before he left the industry for a new life.

“When I graduated high school the highest paying jobs around were coal industry jobs,” Mullins says.

It was after becoming an electrician in the mines that Mullins saw a new side of mining.

“The damage to the economy and the environment lit a fire in me,” Mullins says. “When I saw the high concentration of cancer and my community’s health suffering, I knew it was time to think about a life beyond coal.”

Mullins, now living in Berea, Ky. with his wife and two children, received financial aid from the Kentucky Solar Partnership and, with the help of Eastern Kentucky University, is starting Power Savers, LLC while he pursues other trainings in building performance.

“Efficiency is the quickest, easiest way to save money on energy,” Mullins says. “If we continue on this path, it’s easy to see how we can turn the economy around. But we need to learn how to live more healthy, efficient lives. It’s not just about saving money and the environment. It’s about saving coal miners too.”

With regional initiatives, development and support for green-collar jobs, a more economically and environmentally sustainable future is within reach. A future everyone in Appalachia — and America — can be proud of.

It’s Sad to Say, Fracking’s Here to Stay

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 - posted by brian

A new series of proposed natural gas pipelines will give many states better access to natural gas reserves of the Marcellus Shale, a formation of sedimentary rock that covers much of the Appalachian Basin. The pipelines will connect to larger interstate lines to reach more customers in the northeastern United States and possibly Canada. The price tag for the proposed system is around $2 billion.

Since 2008, major drilling companies have exploited the large natural gas reserves of southwestern Pennsylvania. The epicenter of the fracking movement, 3,000 wells have been drilled there in the past three years, with thousands more planned for the future.

Hydraulic fracturing has quickly risen to the forefront of environmental agenda. The horizontal drilling method’s destructive effects on forests, wetlands, streams and habitat are widely publicized.

In other fracking news, the U.S. Geological Survey recently slashed the estimates of recoverable gas in the Marcellus Shale from 410 to about 84 trillion cubic feet. The previous guess by the oil and gas industry-friendly federal Energy Information Administration was only off by 80 percent.

Soaring Back to Protection

A federal judge restored endangered status for the Virginia northern flying squirrel, stating that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by removing the animal’s protected status. The ruling concluded that the service violated their own recovery plan by removing the species, and implies that recovery plans for other endangered and threatened species cannot be ignored or revised without public input, according to a statement by the Center for Biological Diversity. The center, along with Friends of Blackwater, the Wilderness Society, Heartwood, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition and WildSouth, filed suit in 2009 over the squirrel’s delisting.

This flying squirrel appeared on the planet 30 million years ago and is native to the high-elevation hardwood forests of West Virginia and parts of Virginia. Mostly, these squirrels are known for their aerial acrobatics propelled by underarm skin flaps.

Duke Energy Proposes Rate Hikes

Duke Energy is planning a rate increase that will impact electricity bills and the cost of consumer goods. In these difficult economic times, many North Carolina residents are concerned about a 17.4 percent increase in residential power bills.

The N.C. Utilities Commission will hold a public hearing in Charlotte, N.C. on Tuesday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m. in Room 267 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, located at 600 East Fourth St.

EPA Cleans Mining Waste in N.C.

The Ore Knob Mine Site in Ore Knob, N.C. has its share of pollution problems, including a failed dam at the end of a tailings impoundment and acid mine drainage into the Ore Knob Branch, part of the New River watershed. But the Environmental Protection Agency has restored the dam and rerouted the stream by a half mile to give it a cleaner run into the Little Peak Creek.

With the cooperation of the National Committee for the New River and donations from Foggy Mountain Nurseries, the EPA planted test plots of different native trees and shrubs to determine which plants most effectively minimize sediment runoff.

Smokey Can’t Prevent This Forest Fire

In a move that stunned some in North Carolina’s renewable energy and environmental community, the N.C. Court of appeals ruled that “whole” trees, timbered solely for burning in electrical power plants, can be considered a renewable energy resource. The contentiousness of the decision centers around the concern that allowing newly fallen timber, instead of waste wood product, as fuel in combustion power plants will lead to clearcutting and increased pressure on Appalachian and Southeastern woodlands. Detractors of the move believe the court’s ruling violates the spirit and intent of N.C.’s renewable energy portfolio standard.

ARC Grant Supports Environmental Education

Bluegrass PRIDE (Personal Responsibility In a Desirable Environment), a central Kentucky environmental education nonprofit, and Congressman Ben Chandler announced $40,000 in grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission to support environmental education in central Kentucky.

Amy Sohner, executive director of Bluegrass PRIDE, says environmental education “makes students understand they have a choice and a voice about the state their environment is in.”
She says schools appreciate their curriculum because it uses real-world situations to teach core skills. “We’ve proven that environmental education can improve test scores for the subjects we teach,” she says.