Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

A moment of truth for Kentucky’s coal regulators

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes.

A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes. Photo from LRC (Ky.) Public Information.

In June 2013, mine operator and Kentucky state representative Keith Hall went to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with a complaint.

Kelly Shortridge, a mine inspector with the Division of Mine Enforcement and Reclamation in Pikeville, had been soliciting Hall for bribes to ignore violations on Hall’s Pike County surface mines.

Hall told two cabinet officials that he had already paid Shortridge “a small fortune,” and that the mine inspector “liked the Benjamins.” A report was drawn up, forwarded to the cabinet’s investigator general and Secretary Len Peters, and went nowhere.

The FBI began investigating the matter when the Lexington Herald-Leader published Hall’s complaint report through an open records request. In June, Hall was found guilty of bribing Shortridge to ignore Hall’s safety and environmental violations.

During the trial, the bureau submitted evidence that strongly suggests Keith Hall was not the only operator paying Kelly Shortridge. Shortridge himself has admitted to taking bribes from other Pike County operators.

So how deep does the conspiracy go? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of Hall’s trial. The Herald-Leader published a recent editorial that pointed out the familiar territory here:

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement where Shortridge, an inspector for 24 years, worked.

Other Pikeville-based inspectors allowed a surface mine (not owned by Hall) to operate without a permit for 18 months, until July 2010, when rain dislodged the unreclaimed mountain and flooded out about 80 families. One of the inspectors retired a month later.

Remember, too, that the division went years without penalizing coal companies for filing bogus water pollution reports by copying and pasting the same data, month after month.

This falsified water pollution data was only discovered after a coalition of environmental and citizen groups including Appalachian Voices discovered water monitoring reports that the department had neglected to review for over three years. The fact that the FBI had to find out about Hall’s allegations by reading the newspaper – and not through the cabinet itself – reveals a similar pattern of negligence.

How committed is the cabinet to enforcing Kentucky’s environmental and safety regulations around mining? The answer may lie in the phenomenally small salary that the state was paying Shortridge at the time of his 2014 resignation: $45,160 a year.

This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it speaks volumes about how our regulatory systems function, what they prioritize, and what motivates the individuals who operate within them. Shortridge was using his small salary, in addition to the bribes he was taking from Hall and others, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. It’s impossible to speculate about his personal character, but it does seem clear that he was responding to a specific set of material conditions in a way that most individuals on that kind of salary – and in that kind of position – very likely would.

Without much incentive to enforce existing regulations, and knowing that it pays more to cozy up to the industry than to fight it, we really must ask: how many other Kelly Shortridges are out there? This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask of a regulatory system that, at best, lacks the political capital and material resources to enforce violations, and, at worst, is overseen by the very mine operators it’s supposed to be regulating. (Before being voted out of office in 2014, Keith Hall was the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.)

Finally, Keith Hall’s remark that Kelly Shortridge “liked the Benjamins” – an incredibly condescending statement from a man who once appropriated his own county’s coal severance tax to the benefit of one of his companies – is revelatory. It hints that there are boundaries to what is and what isn’t acceptable within relationships between the coal industry and the state: Shortridge was getting ambitious; his greed was somehow different than Hall’s. Keep in mind that this was confessed to two cabinet officials, mob-style, as if Shortridge was breaking a set of established rules. Hall needed Shortridge until he didn’t, and then sold him down the river when he became an annoyance.

Now that they’re both paying for breaking the rules, will Governor Steve Beshear’s administration adequately investigate further possible corruption? It unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

As the Herald-Leader editorial notes, “This should be a moment of truth, but history tells us not to expect an aggressive self-examination of the state agency’s love affair with the coal industry.”

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Ginseng’s growing role in the new Appalachian economy

Monday, July 20th, 2015 - posted by Adam
The cultivation of ginseng, a medicinal plant native to Appalachia,

The cultivation of ginseng, a medicinal plant native to Appalachia, could provide a boost for local economies.

Most people who live in or come to visit the mountains know that just being here, surrounded by lush green hills and clear, fast-flowing rivers, can have a healing effect on the soul.

But not as many people know that many of the plants that make the mountains’ forest floor so lush and green have real medicinal properties and, when used properly, can help treat ailments ranging from sore throats to cancer.

Growing and marketing those wild medicinal plants and herbs was the subject of a recent workshop offered by the group Appalachian Communities Encouraging Economic Diversification (AppalCEED) in Norton, Va. Based in the heart of Virginia’s coal country, AppalCEED works to promote sustainable ways to diversify the local economy. The workshop focused on helping local landowners, farmers and gardeners gain the information they need to break into this innovative and sustainable market.

Turnout to the workshop was a testament to the possibilities and enthusiasm for new ideas to boost local economies. The room was overflowing with interested people who came from as far away as Williamson, W.Va. — an hour-and-a-half drive.

Part of the draw was the expert panel that AppalCEED assembled for the workshop, which included three experts on the cultivation of wild and medicinal plants and herbs. Scott Persons, Jeanine Davis and David Grimsley are each highly regarded as “gurus” in their niche field of study, and each gave detailed presentations on their respective areas of expertise. Persons and Davis have co-authored a book together that is held as The authoritative text on growing and marketing the plants.

Another big draw is the fact that wild ginseng, perhaps the best known of Appalachian wild medicinal plants, fetches anywhere from $700 to $1,200 per dried pound. While it’s possible to cultivate ginseng on a commercial scale in large fields, the resulting crop is deemed to be of lower quality than its wild-grown counterparts.

Persons has spent his career developing a technique known as “wild simulated” cultivation, where ginseng plants are deliberately planted in small patches in woodlands. This allows for resources and energy to be concentrated, streamlining the process. He’s also developed techniques that can produce a product identical to that of ginseng that would pop up naturally in the wild.

While Scott’s presentation was exclusively on ginseng, Davis and Grimsley focused their talks on other plants, such as goldenseal, black cohosh and even some medicinal plants native to China. All three presenters stress how cultivating these plants in our woodlots and gardens can help to preserve threatened wild stock from being over harvested.

They also discussed strategies for cultivators to supplement their income through strategic marketing. Grimsley in particular is working to develop co-op-like arrangements among consortiums of growers in Floyd County, Va., to reduce production costs and increase collective selling power.

At the end of the day, we’re still talking about farming, even if it’s on a small scale. And while farming these plants won’t make anyone a millionaire overnight, the extra income can certainly help. Anything helps these days.

The coal bust has created some harsh economic realities here in Central Appalachia. The implications of our reliance on one major industry for a century are finally becoming unmistakably clear. No one industry or sector can or should replace coal as it fades into history. We could do well to take a lesson from Appalachia’s forests: there’s strength and healing in diversity.

Interior Department Issues Draft Stream Protection Rule

Thursday, July 16th, 2015 - posted by brian

Contact: Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a long-awaited draft of the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency has been working on since 2010. The purpose of the rule is to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. The agency’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement to accompany the draft rule includes several alternative options, some of which include sections that are stronger than the agency’s preferred alternative.

The following is a statement from Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices’ Legislative Associate.

“The people of Central Appalachia have waited a long time for robust federal action to protect their streams and communities from the damages of surface coal mining. At first glance, the draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions of an ineffective rule. But it’s not worth cheering for the rule as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining waste in our streams.

“Despite the regional coal industry’s decline, existing surface mines have been expanding closer and closer to homes, continuing to put the health of local communities at risk.

“We will continue working with citizens to ensure the agency’s final rule presents the strongest possible protections.

“When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama’s legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining.”

>> Read our blog post from yesterday: How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?
>> Read a brief overview of the Stream Protection Rule.
>> OSM’s press release about the rule with further links.

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.

Ison Rock Ridge and land ownership in Appalachia

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Ison Rock Ridge was one of the "most endangered mountains" in America, until the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a mountaintop removal permit that would have obliterated approximately 1,300 acres of mountainous terrain in Wise County, Va. Map from iLoveMountains.org

Ison Rock Ridge was one of the “most endangered mountains” in America, until the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a mountaintop removal permit that would have obliterated approximately 1,300 acres of mountainous terrain in Wise County, Va. Map from iLoveMountains.org

Earlier this year, our friends at Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards celebrated a major victory.

The long campaign to defeat the Ison Rock Ridge mountaintop removal mining permit in Southwest Virginia came to an end after Jim Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. did not appeal a decision by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to deny the permit.

The now-defeated Ison Rock Ridge mine would have destroyed approximately 1,200 acres in Wise County, Va. The mine site would have threatened five communities: Inman, Andover, Arno, Derby and the Town of Appalachia. And the ridge itself is one of the last areas surrounding those communities that has not been destroyed by mountaintop removal. In other words, this was a huge win.

Victory was won over eight years of hard work through local organizing and legal appeal — our friends at SAMS deserve a well-earned congratulations. It’s certainly time to celebrate this victory, but we can’t let our guard down just yet.

While the imminent threat of mining is past, the land on Ison Rock Ridge is still owned by an absentee landholding company that’s in the business of leasing out its land to coal operators for mountaintop removal. So even though the DMME denied the permit, there’s nothing stopping A&G Coal or another company from submitting an application to mine the threatened mountain.

With coal prices in the gutter, many mines operating at a loss, and local Alpha Natural Resources’ finances in shambles, it’s unlikely that any company is racing to submit a new application. But that could change in a relatively short period of time if current market or regulatory conditions shift, which they do often.

The Ison Rock Ridge victory brings us back to the complicated and perennial issue of land ownership in Appalachia. Approximately 45 percent of the land in Wise County is owned by corporate landholding entities, according the county’s economic development director, Carl Snodgrass.

This isn’t a new development, and it’s not unique to coal-bearing counties in Appalachia. Still, much of our region’s resource-rich land was snatched up in the decades after the Civil War when coal reserves were first being discovered and mined. Ever since, companies whose only interest is to make as much money as possible by extracting the region’s natural resources have had control.

So while the issue of outside land ownership is nothing new, there’s an increasing number of people, including some elected officials, who are starting a renewed call for land reform.

The growing movement for economic diversification across Appalachia is creating the space for public discussion of this and other hard questions. And as more and more localities see the light of diversification, there will be a groundswell of citizens and leaders throughout the mountains calling for land reform.

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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.

“It’s just vitamins!” Industry confuses residents on coal ash safety

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 - posted by sandra

While Duke Energy sows seeds of confusion, CEO Lynn Good gets a raise.

Belmont, N.C., resident Amy Brown has rallied her neighbors to demand answers from Duke Energy and state officials on how her well water was contaminated. See video below.

Belmont, N.C., resident Amy Brown has rallied her neighbors to demand answers from Duke Energy and state officials on how her well water was contaminated. See video below.

Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources continue to confound and confuse families that have the unfortunate luck of living in close proximity to the utility’s coal ash lagoons.

Well testing required by the state’s Coal Ash Management Act has shown unsafe levels of toxic heavy metals in hundreds of drinking water wells near coal ash ponds.

Residents began to receive letters in May from the state health department advising them to not drink or cook with their well water. Soon thereafter, Duke Energy began to offer those who received these notices a gallon of bottled water per day per person.

Beyond the notice and the insufficient supply of bottled water, Duke and the state have not done much to help these citizens process the information that their water is unsafe. In fact, Duke Energy hired experts to contradict the state’s public health officials.

So citizens and county health departments are stepping in to help residents air their frustrations and, hopefully, to receive some answers.

Belmont resident Amy Brown organized a recent community meeting and invited Duke Energy representatives to speak. Part of her community is surrounded by coal ash ponds at Duke’s G.G. Allen plant. The water notice Brown and her neighbors received recommends not using the water for drinking and cooking, but she asks, “How safe would you feel bathing your 2-year-old child in water that you’re being told is unsafe to ingest?”

WBTV 3 News, Weather, Sports, and Traffic for Charlotte, NC

At the meeting, Duke Energy was met with anger and tough questions from residents who are understandably afraid and concerned. Although Duke representatives agreed to stay until the end of the meeting to answer questions, they quickly left after their presentation, about 30 minutes before the meeting ended.

Another meeting, held in Salisbury, was hosted by the Rowan County Health Department. While the meeting was less contentious, it left residents more confused than assured.

Duke Energy brought coal ash “expert” Lisa Bradley along with them to the Salisbury meeting. Bradley, a toxicologist on the executive committee of the American Coal Ash Association, is known for trying to convince the public that coal ash is safe enough to feed your kids for breakfast.

Bradley insisted that metals like vanadium and chromium are minerals that you can get at your local vitamin shop and therefore are no cause for concern. Bradley’s rhetoric glosses over the fact that chromium changes form easily, sometimes into hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic form of the substance that is often a by-product of industrial processes.

Ken Rudo, the toxicologist from the Department of Health and Human Services, who has been personally calling residents to make sure they heed the “do not drink” notice, called baloney out on Bradley’s presentation as seen in the following video clip (thanks to Waterkeeper Alliance for the footage).

In the background of all this, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good got a raise of $50,000 for, as some of the business coverage framed it, having “confronted a coal ash spill” as if Duke Energy was a victim versus the perpetrator of the spill.

Will Good use the the money to buy some hexavalent chromium and vanadium supplements? Or might she donate that money to the residents whose lives Duke Energy has disrupted so they get more than the measly gallon of water a day the company is currently providing?

Not only do these residents need more clean water; they need clear answers on the future of their water supply and the effect drinking from it may have had on their family’s health.

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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.

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