Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

Revitalizing Appalachia from the ground up

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016 - posted by thom

Proposing grassroots principles for the RECLAIM Act

Citizens share ideas about diversifying the local economy at a public forum last fall in Wise County, Va., hosted by Appalachian Voices.

Citizens share ideas about diversifying the local economy at a public forum last fall in Wise County, Va., hosted by Appalachian Voices.

Back in February, a bill was introduced in Congress that would expedite funding to clean up old coal mining sites and redevelop them with a specific goal of fostering economic growth in surrounding communities.

It was a turning point in the unfolding narrative about the future of Appalachia, and we have been working ever since to pass the RECLAIM Act.

The bill is in committee and the language is expected to change a bit in the coming weeks. As Congress considers those changes, lawmakers should look to communities impacted by the coal industry, in Appalachia and across the country, whose perspective is vital to the RECLAIM Act’s success.

As it currently stands, the bill would distribute $1 billion over five years to states and tribes to clean up abandoned mine lands while promoting economic development. The funding comes from an existing pot of money, the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, comprised of coal company fees paid over the past 40 years.

Most coal mine sites that closed prior to the passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act in 1977 were never properly cleaned up, and present environmental and public health risks. The RECLAIM Act aims to create innovative economic opportunities by addressing historic environmental problems in communities with significant economic distress. The bill could put laid-off miners and other local residents to work reclaiming abandoned mines in ways that develop long-term economic opportunities in agriculture, recreational tourism, renewable energy and more.

The town of Coeburn in Wise County, Va.

The town of Coeburn in Wise County, Va.

It’s a “win-win-win” approach if ever there was one. And it’s just the right thing to do. The bill’s patron, Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, agrees. “We decided that whatever we did would have to be sprung from within,” Rogers told The New York Times.

There are now nine Republicans, including Rogers, as well as six Democrats sponsoring the RECLAIM Act, which closely resembles a White House proposal that is unanimously supported by more than two dozen local governments in Central Appalachia. Appalachian Voices is working with regional allies, including Appalachian Citizens Law Center and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, to pass the RECLAIM Act, as are national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club.

I won’t spend time explaining why some of these folks typically don’t get along; calling them “strange bedfellows” will have to do. Yet our differences have not been enough to stop our momentum, much of which is based on a shared belief that how RECLAIM Act funding is allocated, and what projects get funded, must come from the communities.

Appalachian coal producing states — West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Alabama — would each receive millions of dollars under the RECLAIM Act to clean up mine sites, but only some. The estimated funds needed to clean up all abandoned mine lands in those six states is well into the billions of dollars. So deciding which sites are chosen, and what economic development projects are pursued, is paramount.

As the House Natural Resources Committee starts markup on the bill this month, Appalachian Voices and other public interest groups offer these principles as the foundation for the bill’s language:

  • In order to be successful, the RECLAIM Act must improve the quality of life for people and communities affected by economic disruption, environmental damage and inequality.
  • The bill should foster inclusion, participation and collaboration, from the White House to communities directly affected by reclamation projects.
  • The goal of the bill should be to generate stable, family-sustaining, meaningful jobs and broad access to opportunities and benefits.
  • The bill should promote innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.
  • The bill should continue to meet the goals of the Abandoned Mine Lands program, which are to protect and restore public health and our environment.
  • With the RECLAIM Act, as with all of our economic diversification work, we must respect the past while also strengthening communities and culture.

(Read the full set of principles and criteria.)

It’s possible the bill will not live up to these principles. In the past, some state agencies have failed to seek out ideas and input from community members, or have done so after the fact, having already decided on important issues. And in the past, those decisions have sometimes been influenced by politics, and reclamation funding has gone to wealthier areas, and to out-of-state corporations, instead of where it is most needed.

The RECLAIM Act offers people who care about our region a critical opportunity to improve communities throughout Appalachia, and I believe it will. We will push every step of the way to ensure the bill is as strong as it should be so that when it passes, communities are in the strongest possible position to control their own future.

Bringing Citizen Voices to the U.S. Senate

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 - posted by interns


Armed with a wealth of science and quotes from residents directly impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining, our Director of Programs Matt Wasson defended the proposed Stream Protection Rule during a U.S. Senate committee hearing in early February.

The hearing, held by the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, was supposed to be about the relationship between the Stream Protection Rule, intended to protect waterways from surface mining pollution and other environmental laws. But it devolved into ad hominem attacks by majority members on the rulemaking process and the director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, Joseph Pizarchik.

Fortunately, Matt brought a much-needed local perspective to the hearing by sharing the personal experiences of people living near mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia — and supporting those narratives with the growing body of science surrounding the practice’s devastating health and environmental impacts.

Matt began by telling committee members, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, that any discussion of the Stream Protection Rule must start with the basic fact that existing rules are not working, and, in fact, have “never worked to protect the health of streams, communities and wildlife in Central Appalachia.”

The Stream Protection Rule is expected to be finalized later this year. Read more about the hearing and the Stream Protection Rule on our blog.

Our hope for the year ahead

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 - posted by tom

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Appalachian Voices is beginning 2016 stronger than ever and positioned to advance a positive future for the region we all love. Standing with citizens from across Appalachia and from all walks of life, we are hard at work and have high hopes for the year ahead.

Since we launched our economic diversification program and opened an office in Southwest Virginia early last year, the conversation about how to hasten a just economic transition in Appalachia has only grown. A forward-thinking plan to expand funding for economic development initiatives is on the table. But for those initiatives to succeed, both political parties must make supporting investments to strengthen Appalachia’s economy a priority.

Beyond advocating for federal investment in workforce training, infrastructure and land restoration, Appalachian Voices is enlisting experts to develop plans for clean energy and other economic development opportunities in the coal-bearing region, including utilization of abandoned mine sites. By adding technical and policy resources where they are they needed most, we’ll further efforts to build the pillars of a healthier, more resilient regional economy.

Of course, the foundation for that renewed economy must be a healthy environment. And without science-based environmental protections that are fully enforced, we fear the movement to diversify the region’s economy will fall short. This year, the last of Obama’s presidency, is our best chance to see a long-awaited rule finalized to protect Appalachian streams from mining waste.

As we push for an effective Stream Protection Rule, we will remain focused on holding polluters accountable. Pursuing the same strategies that led to our landmark victory over Frasure Creek Mining in Kentucky late last year, we’ll sue coal companies that violate clean water laws, and we’ll put grassroots pressure on regulators to step up enforcement of existing protections.

Our goals demand that we stay deeply involved in action at the state level, where we are combatting the continued threats of fossil fuels. In Virginia, the movement to move beyond dirty energy is opposing proposed multi-billion dollar investments in huge pipelines that would lock the Southeast into an increased dependence on natural gas and exacerbate the impacts of fracking. In North Carolina, residents are coming together to fight the threat of fracking and address the ongoing crisis of coal ash pollution.

Appalachian Voices is committed to these important battles. We’re also increasingly focused on securing investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy by promoting policies and technologies that can reduce harmful pollution and create thousands of jobs. As a result of our efforts, rural electric cooperatives in both North Carolina and Tennessee on are the verge of developing cost-saving energy efficiency programs for their members.

We’re sure to encounter obstacles. Successful renewable energy policies in North Carolina will again face attacks by policymakers. Our electric utilities will tout natural gas and attempt to undermine consumer access to cleaner energy options. The familiar partisan battles over coal and climate change will intensify as election season nears. And states, some more reluctantly than others, will take steps toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan. But we know the landmark climate rule will help states expand clean energy and cut pollution — if only they embrace its potential.

The year is just getting started. But the stage is set for 2016 to be a historic year for clean energy, climate action and efforts to diversify economies that have long depended on the coal industry. With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Please consider joining to donating to support Appalachian Voices today.

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Coal, Congress and the art of lying

Monday, January 11th, 2016 - posted by tarence
By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that's finding an audience in Congress.

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that’s finding an audience in Congress.

It’s amazing how much work goes into stretching the truth. It’s even more amazing when media outlets and political leaders latch onto that “truth” and peddle it without scrutiny.

A recent and relevant example: an economic impact analysis of the Stream Protection Rule, commissioned by the National Mining Association and written by Ramboll Environ, which is a member of the NMA. In short, the analysis predicts that the Stream Protection Rule will all but deal a lethal blow to the American coal industry. It is 82 pages of the kind of overblown, headline-grabbing hysteria found in modern politics, filled with doomsday scenarios, disingenuous methodologies and misinformation.

Doomsday Scenarios

The proposed Stream Protection Rule is intended to protect American streams from the worst environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. It represents an update on science and policy that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has not addressed since 1983, the year the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule was added to the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

The NMA’s analysis of the Stream Protection Rule is grim: between 50 and 95 percent of the nation’s current coal workers will lose their jobs as a direct result of the rule. Its predictions for Appalachia are even grimmer: 30,000 to 52,000 workers, or 60 to 105 percent of the current Appalachian coal workforce, will be cut. 105 percent, that’s truly unbelievable.

According to Jonathan Halpern, a former economist at the World Bank Group and a current professor of energy and infrastructure economics at Georgetown University, the NMA’s projections are seriously flawed. Halpern points out that the NMA relied on unrealistically high coal projections for the 2020-2040 forecast period that do not take into account how factors such as natural gas production, coal seam access and availability, and national policies such as the Clean Power Plan will impact production. Additionally, the study factored in loss of access to coal reserves that are not currently controlled by coal or landholding corporations to project future “losses” in production and employment. As Halpern points out, “[This] inclusion … exaggerates the size of the economic resource base and the consequent ‘loss’ which the study posits.”

In other words, the NMA forecasted a falsely optimistic future for coal, then compared that future to a grim post-Stream Protection Rule future, and projected a doomsday scenario. There is a litany of other problems with the analysis:

  • It uses out-of-date information about the overall financial health of the coal industry. The figures used for coal production, new permits and number of employed miners only go through 2013.
  • It expands the definition of a coal worker to include 20,000 workers not currently employed by the coal industry. The study posits that these workers – which include the freight rail workforce, contractors to the mining companies, and service providers – are employed as the coal mining workforce base, against which the NMA applied employment and income loss multipliers to estimate overall job losses over 25 years. As Halpern points out, this inclusion greatly magnifies the resulting estimates of job loss.
  • It assumes an immediate implementation of the Stream Protection Rule. This is simply not the case, as the rule has not been finalized and won’t be implemented for at least another five years.

Disingenuous Methodology

Ramboll Environ, the NMA member commissioned to conduct the analysis, chose a curious methodology for estimating the Stream Protection Rule’s impact on future coal production. They sat down with 18 unnamed mining companies and asked them how they thought the Stream Protection Rule would impact their bottom lines. It probably doesn’t have to be pointed out that there is nothing scientific or objective about this approach.

Another serious shortcoming of the report is that it rejects any cost-benefit framework. In other words, this is simply a cost analysis. According to Halpern, we would likely see billions of dollars in benefits in the form of safety and health improvements for communities as a result of the Stream Protection Rule. A 2011 study estimated that the public health burden coal operations put on Appalachian citizens costs around $75 billion every year.”

But the NMA refused to take into account any benefits that the rule could provide.

“We don’t know what it’s worth exactly in dollars,” Halpern told me. “But we know what it’s worth in human terms. People are just as afraid of getting sick, of their crops and livestock withering, of their fisheries drying up and their surroundings being degraded, as they are of possible loss of coal mining jobs.”


As mentioned above, one of the biggest fallacies in the NMA’s report is its assumption that the Stream Protection Rule will be implemented immediately, rather than gradually. But to add to this, the study — or at least the coal executives who were polled for the study — assumes a 100-foot buffer zone around streams. This absolutely isn’t the case, and it’s the reason so many clean water advocates are disappointed with the draft version of the rule. (Such a policy would have completely prohibited all mining activities within 100 feet of streams.)

Perhaps the biggest — and most perplexing — fabrication in this report is its claim that the Stream Protection Rule will replace the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule. It will not. The Bush-era rule was tossed out by a federal judge in early 2014, so its inclusion casts further doubt on the validity of the report.

What Communities Really Need

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a study predicated entirely on the fear-inducing prospect of job loss that fails to even consider the potential benefits of environmental protection, of clean water, of lowered risks to health. This fact alone tells us where the NMA’s interests really reside; an organization whose mission is to protect coal mining profits, rather than promote the well-being and empowerment of miners, their families and their communities, can really only claim to be concerned with production loss, rather than job loss. It’s incredible and a little sad that the NMA spent 82 pages trying to convince us that it cares about anything else.

Unfortunately, without a strong policy program to replace lost mining jobs — whether that’s in the form of New Deal-like jobs programs, robust federal funding and grassroots initiatives, or something else entirely — studies like this will continue to impact federal legislation.

For example, this week the House is set to vote on the STREAM Act, which seeks to effectively kill the Stream Protection Rule. Members of Congress who are voting on this piece of legislation will no doubt have seen the headlines, strategically broadcast by the NMA, claiming that the Stream Protection Rule will slash nearly one hundred thousand coal jobs.

Without voices pushing back on this narrative in regional and national media, this disingenuousness has the unfortunate effect of holding back progress for coal miners who may face losing their jobs due to a failing industry, rather than presenting them with tangible solutions.

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Budget holds promise for Central Appalachia

Friday, December 18th, 2015 - posted by thom
The federal budget is settled. It’s not perfect. But it’s pretty darn good.

In the spending bill, Congress steered clear of the Stream Protection Rule and increased the budgets of agencies focused on economic development in areas including Central Appalachia.

Look for a deeper analysis on the budget deal from us next week.

Today the U.S. Congress passed a spending bill that covers all federal government expenditures and sets the budgets of agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Labor, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The spending bill is a big deal for Appalachian Voices. And honestly, it looks pretty darn good.

Until President Obama signs the bill, which he said he will do, the details aren’t final. But negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders from both parties have been going on for months, including several straight all-nighters this past week. The horse trading has already happened. So while we can’t be certain that everything in the current draft bill will remain, I’d be shocked to see changes.

Spending bills offer a chance to do a lot of good and a lot of bad. Congress can fund projects to improve and diversify the economy of Appalachia (which it did, more on that later), and Congress can prevent federal agencies from completing much-needed environmental rules (which it did NOT(!), more on that now).

Appalachian Voices has been working for years to get a strong Stream Protection Rule. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) released a draft version of the Stream Protection Rule earlier this year, and while it’s in need of improvements, the rule is still expected to improve safeguards for streams near mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

Naturally, the coal industry and its backers in Congress have fought against the rule. They argue that protecting our streams from coal’s toxic waste will cost more than 100,000 jobs. While that’s absurd, it is true that forcing mining companies to stop haphazardly dumping all of their junk into streams, and instead coming up with plans to repair damage, will cost them money. So the industry has been begging its congressional advocates to block the rule from being finalized.

But the bill does not include a rider preventing OSMRE from completing the Stream Protection Rule, despite a large group of representatives pushing for one. We are relieved, to say the least.

On the positive side, there are elements of the POWER+ Plan in the budget. The Department of Labor will receive an additional $19 million in 2016 to aid displaced coal mine workers, which is a bigger problem in Central Appalachia than anywhere else. The Appalachian Regional Commission got a huge boost to its budget, from less than $90 million all the way up to $146 million. The agency has recently been concentrating its funding more towards economic development in the coalfield areas of Appalachia. We expect that trend to continue considering its exciting and unexpected 62 percent boost in funds.

Most surprisingly, the bill includes $90 million for abandoned mine cleanup in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The money is designed to be a pilot program that can later be applied to other states, and we can’t wait to see it expand to Virginia and Tennessee. The interesting part about the funding is that it’s not just about patching up abandoned mine sites, but also focuses on our region’s transition away from a coal-based economy. The purpose of the money is to create jobs and support projects that will aid business development in areas hit hardest by coal’s decline. We have been working hard to see these sorts of projects happen, and while this short-term funding is definitely not enough, we’re excited about the new direction.

So the federal budget is settled. The government won’t close down. Our federal agencies can continue their work to protect Appalachia from mining waste. And our region just got tens of millions of dollars tossed its way for economic development.

It’s not perfect. But it’s pretty darn good.

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Student leaders support the POWER+ Plan

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
Members of the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Renaissance Initiative at Whitesburg City Hall. Photo courtesy of ARI.

Members of the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Renaissance Initiative at Whitesburg City Hall. Photo courtesy of ARI.

Yesterday, a group of student leaders in eastern Kentucky took a commendable step in support of Central Appalachia’s youth and economic future.

By a unanimous vote, the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative Student Senate passed a resolution of support for the POWER+ Plan, a White House initiative to build more diverse economies in communities hardest hit by the coal industry’s decline. More than 13,000 coal jobs have been lost in Central Appalachia since 2011 alone.

The group, which is comprised of high school juniors and seniors from seventeen school districts, has a particular interest in seeing economic prospects in the region improve. Rural communities in Central Appalachia are struggling with population loss due to a lack of opportunities.

“This POWER+ Plan can remove the need for people to leave,” said Kiley Short, a Junior Senator from Letcher County Central High School. “It stimulates economic growth and business opportunities, which are imperative to the fate of my home, my culture, my people, and my future.”

In Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan — and calling on their elected leaders to do the same. More than two dozen localities in Central Appalachia’s coal-bearing region have passed resolutions similar to the one approved by the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative.

Specifically, the POWER+ Plan directs millions of dollars in additional funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Department of Labor and other federal agencies focused on economic development. It also calls for an additional $200 million per year over the next five years for the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to restore dangerous unreclaimed mines.

According to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which administers the program, additional funds would assist communities most severely impacted by coal “in a manner that facilitates economic revitalization on reclaimed lands and restored waterways.”

But the fate of that key component of POWER+, which must be approved by Congress, remains unclear.

Regional groups including Appalachian Voices are committed to seeing the POWER+ Plan succeed. And we’ve been inspired by the level of local support in spite of the uncertainty this bipartisan plan faces in a highly partisan Congress.

The need for new investment in Central Appalachian communities is urgent. In supporting POWER+, these young leaders aren’t just voting for their future, they’re voting for their families’ and neighbors’ present.

As Stacie Fugate, a Junior Senator from Hazard Independent, said after the vote: “My brother has recently been laid off from work. This plan hits home for not only me, but the majority of people in our region.”

We congratulate the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative for its vision and thank its members for speaking up for the region’s future.

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Sen. Kaine notes concerns to FERC about Mountain Valley Pipeline

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Dr. Diana Christopulos co-founded the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization with almost 300 affiliates representing over 25,000 citizens. Cool Cities promotes energy conservation, energy efficiency and the transition to clean, renewable energy. This piece originally appeared on the group’s website.

Dr. Diana Christopulos

Dr. Diana Christopulos

Senator Tim Kaine recently completed a series of listening sessions in communities where Mountain Valley Pipeline proposes to build a 42-inch natural gas transmission line, meeting with “affected property owners, local elected officials, local businesses, farmers, organizations dedicated to preserving our natural resources, and numerous other concerned citizens.”

Kaine then wrote directly to the commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) identifying concerns about (1) minimizing impacts of any project through examination of cumulative impacts of different projects and an honest look at community benefits compared to negative impacts; and (2) the need “to empower the public to verify these efforts by ensuring that all relevant information is made available and that there is ample opportunity for public input and comment. Citizens rightly expect that process to be followed to the letter.”

In terms of impact, Kaine specifically requested that FERC clarify:

  • The level of gas demand needed to justify building a distribution branch of the MVP.
  • The steps needed to make this possible — for instance, approximately how much it would cost to build a transfer station to bring supply via a new MVP distribution branch.
  • The extent to which the gas traveling through the pipeline is likely to be exported because “the people in this area of Virginia bear the potential risks of this infrastructure and deserve to know where the gas is going.”

On the environmental front, Kaine asked the FERC to determine:

  • Whether FERC requires or encourages reroutes of the pipeline to avoid land tracts under conservation easement, which property owners understood would be protected in perpetuity.
  • What measures are being taken to prevent impacts to water resources in areas with no water access other than groundwater.
  • How the pipeline will be built to safely miss rivers along this route.
  • Where and how technology to build safely on karst topography has been demonstrated.
  • The degree of information-sharing and consultation that has taken place among FERC, the interested companies, and the National Park Service, given that the route would have to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail.

The Senator also noted several major process concerns and concluded by saying that he would “strongly encourage … that FERC painstakingly follow the system we have in place for evaluating infrastructure. Permitting a pipeline should involve an exhaustive process of eliminating all but the least disruptive construction options. The people whose livelihoods may be affected by a project should have ample opportunity to gather information, get their questions answered, and analyze alternatives —on a timeline conducive to participation by people for whom energy pipeline permitting is not a professional occupation. In short, simply having a public comment process is insufficient if that process is not easily accessible to the public.”

Click here for a full copy of Kaines letter.

Predictable politics giving way to popular support for POWER+

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo of Wise County, Va., by Flickr user biotour 13 licensed under Creative Commons.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan are less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate economic hardship. Photo of Wise County, Va., by biotour 13.

UPDATE: As of December 3, a total of 25 Appalachian government entities have passed resolutions in support of the POWER+ Plan.

* * * * *

The recent growth in local support for a plan to boost Appalachia’s economy has been a bright spot in the region during some of the coal industry’s darkest days.

In Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan, a federal budget initiative proposed by the White House to build more diverse economies in the communities hardest hit by the regional coal industry’s decline.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors of Wise County, Va., unanimously approved a resolution supporting the plan, citing the “dramatic economic transition” and job losses the county has experienced. According to the resolution, the county “desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances” facing the region.

On the same night, the City Council of Benham, in Harlan County, Ky., passed a supporting resolution. Before Benham came the City of Whitesburg, Ky., and Virginia’s Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission.

The Campbell County Commission became the first locality in Tennessee to support POWER+, unanimously passing a resolution yesterday. Also on Monday, members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court voted unanimously in favor of the plan.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

It was only a few weeks ago that Norton, Va., became the first locality in the nation to pass a resolution in favor of the plan. More endorsements are expected in the days and weeks ahead.

Appalachian Voices and our allies have been promoting the POWER+ Plan, too. We’re heartened, but not surprised, to hear local perspectives that don’t reflect the tone legislators from Appalachian states often take in D.C.

After listening to residents speak at the Wise County Board of Supervisors meeting about how the plan could benefit their families and share their hopes for Southwest Virginia’s economy, board member Ron Shortt told the audience, “We’re behind you 100 percent on this. We realize how important it is to Southwest Virginia and Wise County.”

The implication could be that, so far, Congress doesn’t realize how important it is for the region.

Since it holds the federal purse strings, Congress must approve funding for elements of the POWER+ Plan. But after months of opportunity to consider the proposal, and some shirking by Appalachian politicians, lawmakers in the House and Senate weakened key provisions of the plan or left them out of the budget altogether.

We recently covered Congress’s muted response in The Appalachian Voice and pointed to how lawmakers are sticking to their political sides:

… rather than receiving the POWER+ Plan with enthusiasm, many Appalachian lawmakers’ comments echoed past criticisms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims of a war on coal.

“The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that,” a spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Earlier this year, Capito introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon pollution.

When asked about the plan, a spokesperson for first-term Rep. Alex Mooney responded to the Gazette-Mail with a simple “No, Representative Mooney does not support the [POWER+] Plan.”

Mooney has introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of the Interior from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. He has called stopping the rule his “top priority.”

Rather than investing in workforce training and reemployment programs or reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund to focus more on economic development, as the POWER+ Plan would, congressional opponents of the president remain primarily concerned with undermining protections for Appalachian streams and fighting limits on carbon emissions — policy goals, sure, but nothing close to an economic development plan for the region.

The counties that stand to benefit most from the plan are some of the poorest in the United States and continue to face layoffs, the impacts of ongoing mining, and pollution from decades-old and poorly reclaimed mine sites.

Lawmakers representing those counties in Congress, including Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are positioned to rally other influential legislators around the plan, but they aren’t.

Some lawmakers have made statements expressing tacit support. But the resolutions make clear that these localities expect their representatives to do more; some call on members of Congress by name to support funding for economic development in the region.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan, and attempts to fit it into a “war on coal” framework, are understandably less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate the economic hardships they face.

Many of the communities now urging members of Congress to back the plan have been underrepresented over the years in their demands for a more diverse economy. They deserved to be heard then like they deserve to be heard now.

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Appalachian legislators give POWER+ the cold shoulder

Friday, June 26th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

TAKE ACTION: Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

Virginia’s coal-bearing counties would directly benefit from the adoption of the POWER+ plan, a proposal in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget that would direct more than a billion dollars to Central Appalachia.

But the U.S. House budget cuts Virginia entirely out of the forward-thinking Abandoned Mined Lands funding reforms that were spelled out in the POWER+ Plan. That component of the plan would send $30 million directly to the Virginia coalfields for economic development and put laid-off miners back to work cleaning up the messes left by coal companies.

Last week, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee passed a budget bill the leaves out any mention of POWER+.

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

For more background, we recommend this piece by Naveena Sadasivam for InsideClimate News, which details the curious quiet around POWER+ and how the plan has been pulled into the partisan bickering that’s embroiled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the 2016 budget process as a whole.

Under the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, sites that pose a threat to safety are prioritized over sites that offer a potential economic benefit if cleaned up. While this program has reduced potential hazards in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia and the U.S., it has done little to positively impact local economies.

The POWER+ Plan, however, calls for funds to be used for projects that not only improve the environment and reduce hazards, but also create an economic benefit for local economies.

There’s still time for both House and Senate to include the meaningful funding proposals outlined in POWER+. But in order for that to happen we need to make sure that Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, hear the clear message from you to make sure Appalachia gets this much needed funding!

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

One month, two hearings on mountaintop removal

Thursday, June 4th, 2015 - posted by thom
Dustin White, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, testifies before a House Subcommittee about mountaintop removal and its impacts on Appalachian communities.

Dustin White of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition testifies before a House Subcommittee about the impacts of mountaintop removal on Appalachian communities. The head peering over Dustin’s shoulder is that of the author.

It’s rare for Appalachians to have their voices heard in Congress.

Once every year or two, though, someone from the region gets the chance to publicly address a congressional committee about the ongoing problems mountaintop removal coal mining is causing in our region.

Coal industry advocates would probably like to eliminate those occasions all together, but so far they’ve only succeeded in making them uncommon.

In the past month alone, Appalachians have testified about mountaintop removal mining at two different U.S. House hearings. The coal industry lobbyists must be getting sloppy.

Dustin White, a community organizer with our allies the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and an 11th generation West Virginian, testified recently before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Subcommittee Chairman Louie Gohmert (TX-1) wanted the hearing to be about how the Obama administration has ignored states during the writing of the Stream Protection Rule. For him, the hearing was about that.

But for Dustin and for us, the hearing was about the need for the federal government to help put an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

“We will continue to go to the federal agencies as long as the state agencies ignore us, and our lives and homes are threatened by mountaintop removal …”

How can state regulatory agencies honestly be expected to be part of a federal rulemaking process when they have proven time and time again that they cannot perform their jobs to protect citizens from mining pollution. People living in mountain communities are experts in their own lives, and know practices like mountaintop removal are harmful and want action taken.”

A week before Dustin was heard, Dr. Michael Hendryx testified before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. Dr. Hendryx is the foremost expert on the human health impacts related to mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and he has led dozens of studies on the issue. He took full advantage of the opportunity (accidentally?) afforded to him and briefly explained his findings.

“Our research has shown that people who live near mountaintop removal are at higher risk, compared to people living farther away, for a wide set of health problems. We see, for example, that rates of lung cancer are higher in the mountaintop removal communities. We have also found higher death rates from heart disease, lung disease and kidney disease.

The increased mortality in mountaintop removal areas translates to approximately 1,460 excess deaths every year compared to death rates in other parts of Appalachia. In these estimates we have controlled statistically for other risks such as age, smoking, obesity, poverty and other variables; our results are not due to higher rates of smoking, for example, or higher poverty rates. We find that the most serious health problems are present where mountaintop removal is practiced relative to areas with other types of mining or no mining”

The Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee hearing was about H.R. 1644, or “The STREAM Act,” which would stop the Stream Protection Rule from being written, thus taking away one of the Obama administration’s greatest tools for ending mountaintop removal. Scientists shy away from commenting on policy and legislation, as it can be a bit of a risk for them personally. He continued:

“The Stream Act in my view is an unnecessary delay and a threat to human health. Instead, I call for the complete enforcement of existing stream buffer rules, or stronger rules that the [Office of Surface Mining] may put forth, to prevent the dumping of mining waste into streams.”

Lesson learned: never underestimate the courage of Michael Hendryx.

Dustin White did not change the mind of Rep. Louie Gohmert, who at one point went on a long “war on coal” tirade. Dr. Hendryx was the subject of entirely unprofessional and disparaging remarks from Rep. John Fleming (LA-4) during his appearance. But that’s to be expected. It only makes me admire Dustin White and Michael Hendryx more. Not just for putting up with it, but for handling themselves with strength and grace.

Congress does not want to help end mountaintop removal. They’d prefer not to hear about it. More importantly, though, they’d prefer it if you don’t hear about it.

Mountaintop removal is encroaching on communities across central Appalachia. They blasted mountains today, they blasted mountains yesterday, and they’ll blast mountains tomorrow. They won’t stop until they can’t make money off of it. Help us be heard.

Help yourself be heard. Let everyone know that mountaintop removal is still happening, it is wrong, and tell President Obama it must be stopped.