Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Voices’

Virginia city first to support POWER+

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015 - posted by Adam

Welcome to Norton6

The city of Norton, in southwest Virginia, just took an important, forward-looking leadership position in the effort to diversify the region’s economy and create a healthier, more sustainable future.

Tuesday evening, the city council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution supporting the POWER+ Plan, the federal budget proposal to steer billions of dollars for economic development and diversification to Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities, including those in Virginia. It’s the first such local resolution of support in the nation for the plan, proposed earlier this year by the White House.

The city’s resolution also urges U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Congressman Morgan Griffith (9th District, Va.) to support “any plan that targets redevelopment funding opportunities for our region.”

Please contact your Senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices championed this resolution with Norton’s leaders, and commend them for leading the way on this vital issue. We and our partners have been working throughout Central Appalachia to promote this vital opportunity, which would fund job retraining and infrastructure investments, as well as direct new funding to clean up abandoned mines.

The POWER+ Plan creates new funding and bolsters existing federal programs designed to diversify the economy in areas that have relied heavily on coal and have seen job losses as a result of the contracting coal economy in recent years.

Here’s the text of the resolution:

WHEREAS: The POWER+ Plan is a component within the 2016 federal budget proposed by President Obama; and

WHEREAS: The POWER+ Plan, if approved by Congress, would authorize billions of dollars in federal programs targeted to improve the economy of the Appalachian Coalfields, including the economies of Southwest Virginia and the City of Norton; and

WHEREAS: The Plan specifically includes increased funding for the Abandoned Mined Land Fund, Appalachian Regional Commission, and the United Mine Workers of America Health and Pension Plan; and

WHEREAS: The City of Norton desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances facing our region and the increased federal funding targeting our region that would help to leverage local efforts;

NOW, THEREFORE, LET IT BE RESOLVED THAT the City of Norton supports any initiative, such as the proposed increased funding noted above as included in POWER+ Plan, and that the City encourages Senators Kaine and Warner and Congressman Griffith to support any plan that targets redevelopment funding opportunities for our region.

Ask your senators to support the POWER+ Plan.

How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 - posted by Erin
Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that surface coal production nationwide decreased about 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, while production from surface mines that include mountaintop removal mining in three central Appalachian states had decreased 62 percent.

At first, this seems like a huge win in the fight against mountaintop removal mining, a practice that is devastating to community health and the environment, and yields few jobs compared to traditional mining practices. While it is a step in the right direction, declining production is not a sufficient measure of the ongoing human and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.

Closer examination of the data calls into question the adequacy of the legal definition of “mountaintop removal” and, more importantly, demonstrates that much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

First, let’s look at the numbers reported by the EIA. The post, published on the agency’s Today In Energy blog, opens by saying, “Coal production from mines with mountaintop removal (MTR) permits has declined since 2008, more than the downward trend in total U.S. coal production.” While this is true, comparing the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in nationwide surface production (62 and 21 percent, respectively) gives the false impression that mountaintop removal, in particular, is on its way out. However, when you compare the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in surface mine production only for Central Appalachia, the picture looks much different: surface mine production in Central Appalachia has declined by 55 percent from 2008 to 2014.

With this new information, it becomes apparent that mountaintop removal production has not declined much more than surface mining on the whole in Central Appalachia. Given the similarity, we can attribute the decline in mountaintop removal largely to the same market forces that are leading to a decline in all coal mining in Central Appalachia.

The EIA report also relies on the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act’s (SMCRA) narrow definition of what constitutes mountaintop removal mining — essentially, a surface mine “running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill” that is exempt from returning the land to “approximate original contour” because the new land use is intended to be of equal or better economic or public value. The problem with this definition of mountaintop removal is that many Central Appalachian surface mines that cross ridgelines and employ many of the same problematic practices — large-scale blasting, mining through streams, and valley filling — are not, under SMCRA’s narrow definition, considered mountaintop removal mines.

The reality on the ground is that the rugged terrain of Central Appalachia makes it difficult to conduct any large-scale surface mine without mining across a ridgeline. Take for example the recently permitted Jim Justice-owned surface mine in McDowell County, W.Va. The Big Creek Surface Mine certainly cross multiple ridgelines and will construct a valley fill within half a mile of a Head Start preschool, yet this mine is not considered a mountaintop removal mine by either the federal government or the state of West Virginia. Furthermore, the valley fill does not require a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, as it is not being constructed in public waters of the United States.

These facts mean there is little the local community, largely unsupportive of the mine, can do to stop it. Additionally, reclamation of the site requires that the company return the land to its “approximate original contour.” That phrase has never been clearly defined, however, so the land will be returned to a much lower elevation, lacking the fully functioning forest and ecosystems present before mining.

Another issue is that measuring mountaintop removal only by production and permit designation does not lead to a full accounting of the destruction done to the land as a whole.

Back in April, Appalachian Voices undertook a mapping analysis to look at how surface mines are impacting local communities. We had noticed that, even though mining is declining in the region, we are still regularly contacted by impacted residents. So we set out to determine if surface mining was moving closer to communities, and through our Communities at Risk project, we confirmed that mines are in fact encroaching even more on local residents.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on iLoveMountains.org.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on iLoveMountains.org.

To complete this analysis, we identified surface mines across the region using satellite imagery and other data to differentiate between mining and non-mining areas. We excluded areas less than 25,000 square meters. This left us with a map layer of large surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines (whether designated as such by any government agencies, or not), across the region.

This data set is useful not only for our Communities at Risk tool, but also for other analysis on the trends in surface mining in Central Appalachia over time. Using this map, we determined the current amount of land disturbance due to mining — basically any area that is barren due to active mining, recently idled or abandoned mines, or mines not yet reclaimed — has declined from 148,000 acres in 2008 to 89,000 acres in 2014.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly compare yearly production numbers to the number of acres disturbed to yield that production. Land within a surface mine is constantly being shifted, blown up, backfilled, and regraded. Basically, not all barren areas are actively producing coal at any given time. Many areas stay barren for years, while other areas of the mine are producing coal (despite legal requirements for contemporaneous reclamation).

The comparison we can make is that the amount of currently barren land is not falling as fast as production numbers. The extent of surface mined area (whether active, idled, or just unreclaimed) has declined about 40 percent, while production from Central Appalachian surface mines has declined 55 percent.

Essentially, we have more unreclaimed land in 2014, per ton of coal produced in 2014, than in previous years. This is likely due to a number of factors:

  • As thinner, deeper seams are mined, more land must be disturbed per ton of production;
  • Recently, mines have been idled, or even bond-forfeited due to market pressures; and
  • Reclamation is a slow and expensive process.

Mathew Louis-Rosenburg, a West Virginia resident, sums up the problem of only considering the EIA numbers without on-the-ground context:

“On the ground, we measure [mountaintop removal] in acres lost, in water contaminated, communities harmed. The steep decline in surface mine productivity means that a lot more land is being disturbed to get that smaller tonnage and idled mines still contaminate water at a similar rate to active ones. The battle here is far from over and stories like this just lead more and more resources and support to leave the region because people from elsewhere think that we have won already.”

It is beyond time for the Obama administration to take action to end destructive surface mining across Central Appalachia. We are hopeful that a strong Stream Protection Rule will go a long way toward protecting the streams and the people of the region. The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) could also go a long way in protecting communities from health impacts confirmed by mounting scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of success on either of these actions decreases every time misleading evidence suggests this problem has gone away. You can help prevent this by telling the Obama administration to end mountaintop removal and by keeping this conversation going among a national audience. We owe that to the people of Central Appalachia.

Turning down the heat: A collaborative effort to reduce energy bills

Friday, July 10th, 2015 - posted by rory

This piece was co-authored by Jen Weiss, a senior finance analyst at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing easily within reach for all income levels.

The North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing easily within reach for all income levels.

There’s no doubt about it. June was HOT.

While extreme temperatures can make outdoor activities unbearable, they can also send electric utility bills skyrocketing across most of North Carolina and place high demands on the state’s electric utility infrastructure.

As heating and cooling equipment are pushed to the max, the demands are made even more significant due to inefficiently insulated and poorly weatherized houses that lose cool air as quickly as it is generated. But the cost to weatherize a home can make energy efficiency improvements unaffordable — particularly for homeowners who are already burdened with basic housing costs that can outweigh their limited income.

With the aim of providing these homeowners with a solution that will reduce their energy bills and improve home comfort, a collaborative working group was recently been formed by leading energy advisors in the Southeast. Working with multiple stakeholders across the state, the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group seeks to facilitate the development of programs that educate homeowners about energy efficiency and put financing within reach for all income levels.

The Challenge: High Energy Costs

High energy costs can be particularly challenging for lower income Americans. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average North Carolinian spends $3,714 annually on energy costs. With a median household income of $46,334, this equates to 8 percent of the average residents’ annual income. This is nearly three times the national average of 2.7 percent in 2012. In rural communities where median household income tends to be much lower, averaging $22,000, energy expenditures as a percentage of household income can be as much as 17 percent or higher.

This situation is only going to get worse as it is predicted that energy costs will continue to rise in coming years. Energy efficiency improvements for North Carolinians can alleviate the impact of current and future energy costs. Unfortunately, many homeowners cannot afford the upfront cost to weatherize their properties or purchase energy-efficient appliances that will reduce their energy bills. North Carolina residents of all income levels need access to streamlined and simple energy efficiency finance programs that can help make energy more affordable.

A Solution: Utility On-Bill Programs for Energy Efficiency Financing

Fortunately, proven models exist that expand access to financing for energy efficiency improvements for everyone, including people who may not qualify for loans under traditional underwriting criteria. Known as “on-bill” programs, these financing models provide a mechanism whereby the upfront cost of energy saving improvements and equipment is funded by the electric utility or a third-party financier, and ratepayers are able to pay down the cost through a monthly payment on their electric bill.

Depending on the structure of these programs and the initial source of capital used to finance the program, on-bill programs offer a number advantages to participants, particularly low-income consumers. Advantages include performance-based repayment schedules that align the monthly payback with projected savings achieved, creating a net savings for the consumer. In other words, even with the new charge added to their electric bill, the customer will still pay less on an annual basis than they would have without the improvements. Additionally, on-bill programs can be structured so that they are available to renters and businesses.

Partners in Efficiency: North Carolina’s Rural Electric Member Cooperatives

Together, North Carolina’s 26 electric member cooperatives (co-ops) serve roughly 937,000 members, provide electric service to rural areas in 93 of the state’s 100 counties, and account for 23.7 percent of total electric sales in the state. Many of the state’s electric co-ops and municipal utilities serve communities characterized by ratepayers with lower than average median household incomes and limited access to low-cost financing.

A 2014 study of census data found that these utilities serve the highest concentrations of low-income communities across the Southeast, making co-ops and municipal utilities key stakeholders and powerful allies in addressing this issue. Dedicated to improving the lives and communities of those they serve, many co-ops have developed or are exploring energy efficiency finance programs. It is the goal of the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group to support all of North Carolina’s electric co-ops who are interested in developing an on-bill program for their own members.

Benefits to North Carolina Residents

  • Expanded access to capital for ratepayers at all income levels including homeowners, renters and businesses.
  • Performance-based repayment schedules that align the monthly payback with energy savings.
  • Low- to no-cost opportunity to improve energy performance and home comfort.

Benefits to North Carolina Utilities

  • Reduced complaints from customer regarding high bills and problems paying electric bills.
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction.
  • Reduced need to build new generation facilities by reducing peak demand.
  • Helps to achieve energy efficiency and/or renewable energy goals

About the North Carolina On-Bill Finance Working Group

The North Carolina On-Bill Finance Working Group — a partnership of Appalachian Voices, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Finance Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance — has been formed to work with North Carolina co-ops and other community stakeholders to provide the education and support resources needed to establish on-bill programs and expand access to energy efficiency programs for residents across the state.

As the Working Group ramps up its efforts, we will be reaching out to electric co-ops, community partners and other stakeholders to identify the needs and challenges faced by co-ops, and to work toward solutions that facilitate the development of new on-bill programs throughout North Carolina. If you are interested in learning more about the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group or supporting our efforts, send an email to NCOnBill@seealliance.org.

EIA: Mountaintop removal coal production down

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 - posted by brian
A combination of market and regulatory forces has contributed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. Graphic from eia.gov

A combination of market and regulatory forces has contributed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. Graphic from eia.gov

The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) published a blog post this week showing that coal produced by mountaintop removal mining in Central Appalachia decreased by 62 percent between 2008 and 2014.

According to the agency, a combination of factors including abundant and cheap natural gas, growing use of renewables, flat electricity demand, and environmental regulations has contributed to the sharp decline.

It’s important to note that what the EIA defines as mountaintop removal is not the same as what folks in Appalachia call mountaintop removal.

Because the EIA doesn’t count a lot of large strip mines in the region, the total numbers here likely underestimate the number of mines threatening human health and the environment. For the same reason, production declines for mountaintop removal specifically may not be as steeps as the EIA states.

What is clear, though, is that both production and the total number of mountaintop removal mines is way down in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Our work is paying off, but we still have a long way to go. Mountaintop removal is still putting communities at risk. In fact, in many places, active mining operations are getting closer to communities.

Demand for Central Appalachian coal will continue to decline, making further progress inevitable. But we won’t end mountaintop removal by relying on the market alone. The Obama administration must take further action to protect Appalachia by issuing a strong Stream Protection Rule, which is due out this month.

The following is a statement from Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay:

It is incredibly important not to look at these numbers and conclude the problem is just going away. Production numbers don’t convey the extent of human health impacts. Mine location, blasting extent, and impacts to the environment are much more important indicators of damage done to communities.

Fewer mines is good news. But don’t expect us to celebrate. The EIA reports that last year there were over 30 mountaintop removal mines operating in Central Appalachia, producing more than 20 million tons of coal. Those numbers should be zero.

Allowing mountaintop removal mining to continue as residents demand new investments and support for economic alternatives will only burden communities searching for a better path forward.

Let the President know we need a strong rule that helps move Appalachia forward.

A time of transition: APCo’s latest Virginia generation plan

Monday, July 6th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Photo courtesy of Community Housing Partners / Solarize Blacksburg.

Customer involvement is essential as Appalachian Power navigates permitting and rate-setting for future clean energy projects in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Community Housing Partners / Solarize Blacksburg.

It’s like Christmas in July — for those of us who get excited about energy news, at least.

Last week, Virginia’s utilities released their long-term plans to meet electric demand. Here we unwrap that bright and shiny package and take a look at what mix of resources Appalachian Power Co. plans to pursue between now and 2029.

What would you expect APCo to include in its plan? It wouldn’t be a surprise to see huge investments in solar and wind; after all, clean power is growing rapidly in the commonwealth. For example, in the first three months of 2015, clean energy jobs picked up rapidly to the point that Virginia was ranked seventh in the country, counting biofuels and other clean transportation projects. Solarize initiatives and institutions are further fanning these flames, and this fire now appears to be reaching the utility level, too. With utility participation in this trend, there is a chance to realize serious health, economic and employment benefits.

And there is another important consideration in Virginia. Last year, the State Corporation Commission, which regulates Virginia electric utilities, directed APCo to look at ways to meet national carbon pollution reduction goals.

Now that APCo’s latest long-term plan is out, we have a window into how the company hopes to meet future demand. We can now ask how these options promote healthier communities, lower overall energy bills and create more sustainable clean energy jobs in the company’s service area, which includes much of western Virginia. And we can see how its plan interacts with new pollution standards.

Here are five points to help illuminate the plan: its purpose, the mix of sources, how energy efficiency is treated, the role of fossil fuels, and the scale of renewables.

1. APCo calls its primary option the “hybrid” plan. According to the plan summary: “While not the least-cost plan, the Hybrid Plan, when compared to other portfolios, attempts to balance cost, the potential risk of a volatile energy market.” That last phrase can help defend the options based on the fluctuations in natural gas prices and may refer to regulations, too.

2. Wind, solar and efficiency resources currently total just 1 percent of APCo’s total capacity (in megawatts). Today, coal represents 72 percent of APCo’s generation portfolio. Natural gas represents 14 percent. By 2029, wind, solar and efficiency will come to 22 percent under this approach, coal will fall to 52 percent and natural gas will grow to 23 percent.

3. But let’s look at energy efficiency. Currently, there are no APCo efficiency programs underway in Virginia. There is, however, a set of “demand-side management” programs that the commission approved to begin later this year. And the company does fund low-income weatherization. Still, its Hybrid Plan largely ignores the opportunity to expand energy efficiency, which under the plan accounts for just 1 percent of energy needs by 2029. The state goal endorsed by Governor Terry McAuliffe is 10 percent savings by 2020. Only by developing much more robust energy efficiency programs can APCo significantly invest in reducing customer bills, help create jobs in home energy assessment and retrofitting, and avoid the need to develop costlier sources.

4. Clinch River Power Plant units 1 and 2 are still on schedule to be converted to natural gas now and then retired before 2026, and unit 3 is close to being retired. Glen Lyn is now also retired. While the Hybrid Plan describes pursuing constructing 836 megawatts of combined-cycle natural gas units, it appears the company plans to build those plants out of state, limiting the growth of carbon emissions in Virginia, but leading to an increase in the carbon footprint of APCo’s Virginia customers.

5. Clean energy investments would grow significantly under APCo’s plan. Utility-scale solar will include a 10-megawatt project in 2016, with future projects bringing the total to 510 megawatts of solar by 2029. Onshore wind will include 150 megawatts of projects in 2016, with future projects bringing the total to 1,350 megawatts of wind by 2029. APCo assumes its customers will add a total of 25 megawatts of distributed solar generation (rooftop panels) by 2029. Since APCo is factoring that distributed solar into its plans, it should assist customers with incentives to go solar and begin to fairly value those customers’ contributions to a more secure and cleaner energy system.

While APCo representatives stress that the resource plan document is merely a snapshot in time and subject to changes and evolution, it’s worth engaging with the utility about what this plan says about its priorities.

Since APCo’s choices figure into Virginia’s ultimate compliance with the Clean Power Plan, it’s critical that the utility consider how to maximize benefits for customers as it works to meet emissions targets. Over the next 15 years, APCo must plan to reduce its total annual carbon pollution, not just slow its growth. The goals for greenhouse gas reductions are within reach, and our energy choices send signals that echo louder than ever across the Southeast.

As APCo navigates permitting and rate-setting processes for its vision of future clean energy projects, customer involvement will be essential. We’ll need to be ready to challenge any and all barriers to smart renewable energy investments that diversify local energy sources, create jobs in the clean energy sector and result in healthier air in APCo’s service region.

Supreme Court delivers blow to EPA’s mercury rule

Monday, June 29th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo: ©hicagoenergy, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo: Creative Commons/Flickr

In a major decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Environmental Protection Agency did not properly consider costs when it created a rule to limit mercury emissions from power plants.

Finalized in 2012, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard is one of the Obama administration’s most significant efforts to combat harmful air pollution and protect public health. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can bypass the body’s placental and blood-brain barriers, threatening cognitive development and the nervous system.

The rule, which also targets pollutants such as arsenic, chromium and hydrochloric acid gas is expected to prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks each year.

While difficult to quantify, the rule’s health benefits would well exceed the estimated $9.6 billion cost in annual compliance costs. In fact, a formal analysis found the quantifiable benefits of the rule could reach $80 billion each year — as much as $9 for every dollar spent.

Still, industry groups and several states argue the EPA did not adequately consider costs when determining whether regulating mercury under the Clean Air Act is “appropriate and necessary.”

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the EPA, leading the challengers to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. Today’s 5-4 ruling remands the case back to the D.C. Circuit Court, which could order the EPA to reconsider the costs of compliance or to craft a new plan to regulate mercury altogether.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Campaign Director Kate Rooth:

Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a disappointing setback; for far too long the costs of unregulated pollution to human health and the environment have not been adequately weighed in determining our energy future. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard is a critical component of the Obama administration’s effort to curb pollution from power plants. This rule has already resulted in many of the oldest and dirtiest coal plants being retired or updated, and it is critical that these safeguards remain in place in order to protect communities and future generations from mercury and other toxic air pollution.

The Supreme Court decision still provides a clear path forward for the EPA to limit dangerous mercury and other toxic pollutants in our air. We are confident that the agency will be able to respond to the court’s ruling by demonstrating that the health costs of continued power plant pollution greatly outweigh the costs of the rule itself.

Duke expands coal ash cleanup, but leaves N.C. communities in danger

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 - posted by amy
Duke Energy announced plans for its future coal ash cleanup efforts. But the fates of several coal ash sites threatening North Carolina communities remain unclear.

Duke Energy announced plans for its future coal ash cleanup efforts. But the fates of several coal ash sites threatening North Carolina communities remain unclear.

On Tuesday, Duke Energy announced it plans to excavate coal ash from ponds at three power plant sites in North Carolina, along with two more at its South Carolina facilities.

But the fates of several sites that pose significant threats to drinking water and nearby communities remain unclear.

Duke is already required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act to clean up four sites deemed “high-priority” by lawmakers. By recommending additional sites be excavated, Duke is committed to cleaning up ponds at seven of its 14 power plants across the state. That is, as long as the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is on board.

The total amount of coal ash now planned for excavation is 35.4 tons of ash. Duke plans to move the excavated ash to lined landfills or use it as structural fill material.

Although the company has now committed to cleaning up the ash at half of the sites in North Carolina, the majority of the ash polluting the state’s waterways remains largely unaddressed. As for the seven sites not included in today’s announcement, the company says further environmental testing is needed to assess contamination and determine clean up plans.

Importantly, the sites Duke has not committed to excavating are the largest in the state, including the 12.5 million tons of ash at Belews Creek, the 11.5 million tons at G.G. Allen, and the 27 million tons of coal ash stored at the Buck and Marshall plants. That amounts to more than 70 million tons — the bulk of Duke’s coal ash — still sitting in leaking, unlined ponds seeping and discharging into our waterways.

Around these unaddressed sites, nearly 500 households have been warned by the N.C. Department of Health that their well water is unsafe for drinking or to use for cooking due to contamination possibly associated with nearby coal ash ponds.

While Duke’s announcement is welcome news for the communities living near Moncure, Goldsboro, Lumberton and those who rely on the Cape Fear, Neuse and Lumber rivers for drinking water, others worry they’re being left behind and are concerned about potential harm caused by coal ash stored in landfills — and who is responsible for it.

A year and a half after the Dan River spill, Duke is certainly taking steps in the right direction. But there is still much work to be done for the company to prove it is the “good neighbor” it claims to be.

As the company’s coal ash cleanup efforts expand, we have just a few questions: Does Duke plan to leave more than 70 million tons of toxic ash in unlined ponds polluting North Carolina’s waterways? Will the company ensure the health and safety of workers and residents throughout the clean up process?

Until Duke makes an announcement that takes into account the safety of all its current and future neighbors, we’ll hold our applause.

Learn about the threat of coal ash pollution. Stay up to date by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Video illustrates need for energy efficiency in the High Country

Friday, June 19th, 2015 - posted by eliza

In the mountainous northwestern corner of North Carolina, people pay higher percentages of their income on energy bills than almost every other part of Appalachia and the country. The especially harsh winters in this high-elevation region and widespread, outdated and energy-inefficient housing factor heavily into this problem.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia team held the High Country Home Energy Makeover contest this past winter to raise awareness about the issue and help three families in need. Their stories are representative of the more than 70 applications and inquiries we received about the contest. Our team is promoting affordable and accessible improvements to energy efficiency as a solution and advocating for our local rural electric cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp., to develop a program that will offer these improvements to its members.

This video takes you to the homes of the three winners and provides a glimpse of their experience living with high energy bills and struggling to heat their homes in the winter. See for yourself what the face of energy efficiency looks like, and how it can make you smile with lower bills and a more comfortable home!

If you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric, sign on to our letter of support asking for an on-bill financing program, which would help members cover the cost of home energy improvements.

Silas House: A Remembrance of Jean Ritchie

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Silas House is an author, Kentuckian and activist, who also serves on Appalachian Voices’ board of directors. Silas shares this remembrance of Jean Ritchie, the Kentucky-born folk icon, who died yesterday. Last May, Appalachian Voices was graciously invited to participate in and benefit from “Dear Jean,” a tribute concert to Ritchie in Berea, Ky. Portions of this tribute are excerpted from the 2009 book Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal by Silas House and Jason Howard, University Press of Kentucky

Silas House (middle) with Jean Ritchie, and his partner Jason Howard, editor of literary magazine Appalachian Heritage.

Silas House (middle) with Jean Ritchie, and his partner Jason Howard, editor of the literary magazine Appalachian Heritage.

Above all, kindness always lit up the face of Jean Ritchie, who passed away June 1 at the age of 92. And she possessed the same kindness in her hands, in the slight, humble bend of her neck, in her beaming smile. And of course that kindness came through the clearest — the cleanest — in her voice.

It was there in her speaking voice, but also in her singing, the very thing that caused The New York Times to proclaim her “a national treasure” and the reason she became widely known as “The Mother of Folk.” But along with that kindness was a fierceness that led her to become one of the major voices in the fight for environmental justice.

I grew up in Southeastern Kentucky, two counties away from where Ritchie had been raised. She was a source of incredible pride for my people. Everyone I knew loved Jean Ritchie, and they especially loved the way she represented Appalachian people: with generosity and sweetness, yes. But also with defiance and strength. By the time I first met her in 2006, Jean was a true legend. Although I was in total awe of her, it didn’t take me long to feel right at home and we became fast friends.

I loved visiting with her and her wonderfully devoted husband, George Pickow, who passed away in 2010. Anytime I would comment on her legendary status, she’d brush it aside, embarrassed. But she was a true inspiration to so many of us. Her accolades are too many to list. In 2002 she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest award given in the nation to traditional artists and musicians. Her original compositions have been performed by such artists as Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, the Judds, Kathy Mattea, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and many others.

Jean Ritchie, 1922 - 2015

Jean Ritchie, 1922 – 2015

Born in 1922, she went to New York to work in a settlement school and was amazed to find that she eventually became well-known for her singing, playing, and songwriting. By the end of the 1960s Ritchie had recorded twenty albums, served on the board of and appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival (where her iconic performance of “Amazing Grace” is still talked about by anyone who was there), and was considered one of the leaders in the folk music revival.

She had also single-handedly popularized the mountain dulcimer. And steadily throughout her career she had become more and more concerned with the environmental injustices facing her homeland. She wrote her first environmental-minded songs under the pseudonym of Than Hall so her parents wouldn’t be harassed and because she felt using a man’s name might make them easier to become published. But eventually she embraced the fight for environmental justice and became a symbol of the movement.

In 1974 she recorded what many consider the first of her three true masterpieces (along with None But One and Mountain Born) out of her forty albums. Clear Waters Remembered contains three of the original compositions she is most often recognized for: “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” and “Black Waters.” It would also be the album that would solidify Ritchie’s position as an environmentalist and activist.

“Black Waters” in particular became a rallying cry for an ever-growing outrage against the environmental devastation being caused by strip mining, a form of coal mining that became prominent in the 1960s. The practice was giving many Appalachians pause, especially since most of the coal companies were able to mine the coal with broad form deeds, many of which had been sold decades before. Ritchie became a part of this movement with “Black Waters,” which became its anthem.

After struggling with writing “Black Waters” for awhile, Ritchie finished the song after being invited to participate in a memorial concert for Woody Guthrie. She performed it for the first time during that show and introduced it as something Guthrie “might have written had he lived in Eastern Kentucky.” Besides being a powerful environmental song, it also resonated with Appalachians who might not have identified themselves as environmentalists but certainly had a love for the land in their very blood.

1977’s None But One is Ritchie’s most critically-lauded album; it was even awarded the prestigious Critics Award from Rolling Stone magazine. The album contained two more of Ritchie’s most famous songs of social consciousness, “None But One,” a treatise on racial harmony, and “The Cool of the Day,” an ancient-sounding spiritual which demands environmental stewardship and is now widely used as one of the major anthems in the fight against mountaintop removal. It is a song that has already achieved classic status by being included in the hymnal of the Society of Friends. Ritchie allowed Kentuckians For The Commonwealth to use the song on their popular compilation Songs for the Mountaintop, which raised money for the fight against mountaintop removal. In 2007 Ritchie performed the song at The Concert for the Mountains, an event held in New York City with Robert Kennedy, Jr. in conjunction with a delegation of Appalachians who attended the United Nations Conference on Environmental Stability to speak out about the devastation caused by the form of mining.

“I never feel that I’m doing very much to help our poor mountains,” Ritchie modestly told me in 2008 after I told her she was one of the reasons I had become an environmentalist. “Beyond making up songs and singing them, I don’t know what else to do. It seems an accolade I don’t deserve.” I wanted to tell her that words and music were the main ways we had always fought back, and that her words and music had done more than she could ever imagine. But then I saw that there were tears on her eyes. Her face was turned to the white light of the window and she was lit as if beatific. I had always thought she was. In that moment, Jean was visibly upset. “Sometimes, when I think of how it’s all gone …” she began, but had to stop speaking.

Jean leaves behind a legacy of love and light. Of kindness and dignity and strength. She fought back with words and music, and she taught us to do the same. I can’t imagine a better way to be remembered than that.

Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters” performed by John McCutcheon, Tim O’Brien, Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Stuart Duncan and Bryn Davies.

Appalachian communities are still at risk

Friday, May 29th, 2015 - posted by tom

Mapping the encroaching threat from mountaintop removal

communities-at-risk-widget

One thing we at Appalachian Voices particularly pride ourselves on is our ability to work in the realm where technology, hard data and storytelling converge.

Over the years, we’ve applied these skills to develop tools on iLoveMountains.org like What’s My Connection? and The Human Cost of Coal to show in compelling and unmistakable fashion how mountaintop removal coal mining is ransacking Appalachia’s communities and natural heritage.

Last month, we unveiled our latest project, Communities at Risk, an mapping tool revealing how mountaintop removal has been expanding closer to people’s homes in Central Appalachia — even as coal is in decline — and posing increasing threats to residents’ health and the environment.

EXPLORE: The Communities At Risk From Mountaintop Removal Mapping Tool

We used Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, mining permit databases and mapping data from SkyTruth to develop the interactive map and identify the 50 communities that are most at risk from mountaintop removal. The resulting map offers the first-ever time-lapse view of the destruction’s encroachment on Appalachian communities.

Behind all the data and coordinates, of course, are real people and communities, and that is what drives our work. The communities most at risk from mountaintop removal suffer higher rates of poverty and are losing population more than twice as fast as nearby rural communities with no mining in the immediate vicinity. The health statistics are equally troubling; a 2011 study found double the cancer rates in counties with mountaintop removal compared to nearby counties without it.

Our goal with Communities at Risk is to ramp up the pressure on the White House to end this practice, which remains the single-most overwhelming environmental threat in the region. In the early days of President Obama’s administration, promises were made that regulating mountaintop removal would be based on science. The science on the dire impacts is definitive, yet the administration has failed to act accordingly.

WATCH: Communities At Risk — End Mountaintop Removal Now

Appalachians are working hard to reinvent their economy and outlast the fall of King Coal. Much of that future rests on protecting the air, the water, and the region’s unparalleled natural beauty.

It’s incumbent on the Obama administration to help revive this region that has powered the nation’s economic ascendancy for generations. As citizens have argued for years, cracking down on the continuing devastation of mountaintop removal is critical to moving Appalachia forward.

For Appalachia,

Tom Cormons