Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

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 the 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. Already this rule has 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.

Another challenge facing coal: Cleaning up

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015 - posted by brian
As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about post-mine reclamation liabilities to state officials.

As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about companies’ ability to pay for post-mine reclamation.

After bankruptcies, legal fees, fines, plummeting share prices and years without a profit in sight, another aspect of the financial perils U.S. coal companies face is coming into full view.

Recently, regulators worried about the ability of coal companies to pay for post-mine reclamation have begun scrutinizing a practice known as “self-bonding,” which allows a company to insure the cost of restoring the land after mining without putting up collateral, provided it meets certain financial criteria.

Reuters reported last week that Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, is under the microscope and may be violating federal bonding regulations under the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

Peabody, which reported a $787 million loss in 2014, had roughly $1.38 billion in clean-up liabilities insured by self-bonding at the end of March, according to the report. In fact, as its finances deteriorate, analysts say Peabody is warping the language of the law and pointing to the relative strength of its subsidiaries’ balance sheets to continue meeting self-bonding requirements.

Peabody is not alone. Arch Coal, which Reuters found has also failed the financial test to meet self-bonding requirements, is restructuring its multibillion-dollar debt. The company ended 2014 with $418 million in cleanup liabilities and hasn’t turned a profit since 2011.

On May 29, Alpha Natural Resources received word from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that it is no longer eligible to self-bond in the state. The company now has less than 90 days to put up $411 million in anticipated mine cleanup costs. The nation’s second-largest producer by sales, Alpha told investors earlier this year that it had $640.5 million in reclamation liabilities at its mines in Appalachia and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Watching as even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal bonding program are voicing urgent concerns to state officials.

In April, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement sent a letter to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection urging that the state conduct a fuller analysis of future risks — not just rely on historic data — to calculate reclamation costs.

“Given the precarious financial situation” of companies operating in West Virginia, the letter states, regulators should closely examine the risk of failure for sites with markedly more expensive liabilities such as pollution treatment facilities.

From where we’re standing, it’s tough to see how the situation could improve. Taken together, the country’s four largest coal companies — Peabody, Alpha, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy — have about $2.7 billion in anticipated reclamation costs covered by self bonding. Bloomberg News reported in March that nearly three quarters of Central Appalachian coal is mined at a loss.

As the problem grows, regulators and advocates for reform face their own predicament. Stricter self-bonding standards and enforcement push cash-strapped companies closer to bankruptcy. But inaction could leave taxpayers to pick up the bill if companies with unreclaimed mines eventually crumble.

Learn how mountaintop removal puts Appalachian communities at risk. Read the latest issue of
The Appalachian Voice.

A story found “In the Hills and Hollows”

Friday, June 5th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Filmmaker Keely Kernan, who wrote this piece, is currently producing In the Hills and Hollows, a documentary that follows the lives of several West Virginia residents living in the middle of the natural gas boom. The film also juxtaposes the boom and bust coal industry that has dominated the landscape of West Virginia for over a century with the current natural gas boom. Visit hillshollowsdoc.com to learn more about the project. Read the latest issue of The Appalachian Voice, which features stories about our fractured relationship with natural gas.

In the Hills and Hollows is an upcoming documentary film by Keely Kernan about the natural gas industry and its impacts on West Virginia communities.

In the Hills and Hollows is an upcoming documentary film by Keely Kernan about the natural gas industry and its impacts on West Virginia communities.

It was on the banks of the Ohio River that I was reunited with former residents of Tyler County, W.Va., Annie and John Seay. They were staying in an RV park that had become home to more than a dozen transient oil and gas workers.

I first met Annie and John at their home in Lima, W.Va., that was situated up a hollow surrounded by the vast rolling mountains that encapsulate West Virginia. They moved here from California with the hope of living off the land and retiring in the quiet countryside. After spending years investing in their property and building their dream home they found themselves doing the unimaginable — packing up and leaving West Virginia. Their property had been surrounded by dozens of gas wells and the smell of gas lingered in their hollow. There was no end in sight to the natural gas development that was transforming the rural landscape into an industrial zone.

“There is no respect for rural areas and rural areas are the ones getting attacked,” says Annie. After years coping with all the development, the traffic, and the insecurity of the long term consequences associated with living next to dozens of gas wells they decided it was time to leave. They left their home in August 2014 and moved into an RV. What they hadn’t sold at auction was packed up and placed in a storage facility until the time they found their new home.

As I walked towards their RV a large barge of coal slowly drifted down the Ohio River. It had been a few months since the last time I saw Annie and John. The weight of what had just happened and the unknown destination ahead of them was still heavy on their minds. However, their hope remained clear: find a new home, ideally somewhere this could never happen again.

In recent years, West Virginia has had some of the highest rates of depopulation in the country. Many reasons have added to this such as the lack of employment opportunities and the mechanization and decline of the coal industry. After the Elk River chemical spill last January, dozens of for “For Sale” signs started popping up around Charleston. And now the natural gas boom has hastened the population drain.

On my journey throughout the state I have met dozens of residents facing the same reality as Annie and John. These residents’ stories bring to the surface larger issues that need to be addressed in our country today — mineral rights versus individual surface rights, eminent domain versus individual and community rights. Overall, these stories provoke the question — what do property rights really mean?

Lewis County, W.Va., resident Tom Bond. Photo by Keely Kernan.

Lewis County, W.Va., resident Tom Bond. Photo by Keely Kernan.

As Lewis County resident Tom Bond states, “I would be forced to contribute the value of my property to a private enterprise. It is basically unconstitutional.” Bond is an 83-year-old cattle farmer from Lewis County and, like many residents of West Virginia, he does not own the minerals under the surface of his property.

Citizens across the nation are facing these challenges as natural gas development moves into their communities. What makes West Virginia unique is that in many ways this is history repeating itself. We have seen the legacy of the boom and bust coal industry, the poisoning of our waterways and the endless boarded up houses and empty store fronts that line the streets of towns that were once prosperous. In the southern part of the state the counties that produced the most coal are some of the poorest in the United States. We have seen wealth and resources leave and know what it is like to be left behind.

As I sat on the banks of the Ohio River and watched more coal barges flowing past I thought about the direction we are heading in yet again as a state. I have always believed in storytelling, particularly visual storytelling. I think it has the potential to connect us to people and places we might not otherwise know or understand. I hope that by sharing these stories I can help promote an important conversation about the type of future we want to share.

Watch the trailer for In the Hills and Hollows and learn more about the project here.

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.

Keep the Clean Water Act going strong

Thursday, June 4th, 2015 - posted by sandra

Is the Obama administration ready to continue modernizing the landmark law?

After releasing the final Clean Water Rule last week, the EPA should continue modernizing the Clean Water Act by better protecting clean water from power plant and industrial waste.

After releasing the final Clean Water Rule last week, the EPA should continue modernizing the Clean Water Act by better protecting clean water from power plant and industrial waste.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the release of its long-awaited Clean Water Rule, which clarifies the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act.

The finalized rule ends a decade of confusion; a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision brought into doubt the definition of “navigable waters,” which the EPA had historically interpreted to include areas connected to waters by tributaries or other smaller streams.

As The Los Angeles Times reports:

Before the new rule, up to 60 percent of American streams and millions of acres of wetlands were potentially overlooked by the Clean Water Act, EPA officials say. One in three Americans … use drinking water affected by these sources that lacked clear protection from pollution before the rule change, according to the agency.

Is the Obama administration ready to continue the trend of strengthening and modernizing the Clean Water Act — the crucial environmental law that came about due to levels of water pollution that seem unfathomable today?

As the EPA pursues updating the Effluent Limitation Guidelines, which provide standards on wastewater discharge from power plants, we hope that is indeed the case. Sixty percent of water pollution comes from coal-fired power plants alone, and these guidelines would also include natural gas and nuclear facilities.

The primary reason the EPA is even updating these guidelines is because clean water groups sued the agency for not having updated the rule since 1982.

These out-of-date standards do not contain federally enforceable limits on toxic heavy metals. Any limits are left for individual states to decide; as a result, 70 percent of current Clean Water Act permits for power plants do not have limits for heavy metals.

Even worse, the water pollution from these plants has become more dangerous since many coal-fired power plants have installed air pollution technology that “scrubs” emissions before they leave the smokestack. This is good news for air quality, but not for water quality. The scrubbed pollution has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is in waste impoundments where these pollutants supposedly “settle” to the bottom. Power plants are then allowed to dump water from these impoundments into our river and lakes, which sometimes serve as drinking water sources.

Heavy metals are dangerous at varying levels to wildlife and human health. The industry is also discovering that the chemicals used in the “scrubbing” process can interact with chemicals from drinking water treatment plants to create trihalomethanes, which have been linked to bladder cancer.

The EPA released draft options of the Effluent Limitation Guidelines in 2013 and received more 160,000 comments, most asking for the strong technological options that would create zero waste. The agency is planning to release the final standard this fall. But there is real concern among clean water advocates that the final rule may not pursue the most technically feasible option for stopping pollution from heavy metals and other chemicals, as required by the Clean Water Act.

We are going to need your help to crank up the pressure on the White House to make sure the EPA listens to us water-drinkers as it works to finalize the rule for this fall. Sign up here to receive updates. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, too.

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

Reflections from the second SOAR Summit

Friday, May 22nd, 2015 - posted by Adam
SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. But the initiative must foster a more inclusive conversation if it hopes to create lasting change.

SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. But the initiative must foster a more inclusive conversation if it hopes to create lasting change.

I remembering hearing about the SOAR Initiative when it was first announced in 2013.

Like a lot of people working for a better Appalachia, I was excited to hear that the question of “what comes next?” was finally receiving some high-level attention.

Last week’s summit was the first time I had connected directly with the initiative and I had high hopes. Although SOAR focuses specifically on enhancing economic opportunities in eastern Kentucky, I was counting on bringing back ideas and inspiration that could be applied to Appalachian Voices’ economic development work in far southwest Virginia.

The event was well attended — an estimated 1,300 people showed up. But, even with so many who care deeply about transitioning the eastern Kentucky economy gathering in one place, there was disappointingly little time or space created for discussion amongst the people who are doing the lion’s share of the on-the-ground work in Appalachian communities. There was a lot of “talking at” and not nearly enough “talking with.”

MACED’s Ivy Brashear had a similar reaction and shared her thoughts in an eloquent post titled “SOAR still important, but second summit falls short of expectations.”

This is not to say that some of the “talking at” portions of the summit were not inspiring or worth hearing. U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was on the scene, and he gave a very enthusiastic and hopeful speech about the future of the region.

During his plenary address, Secretary Perez officially rolled out $35 million in federal implementation grants available through the POWER Initiative, a coordinated effort led by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to invest in communities negatively impacted by changes in the coal industry and power sector.

These grants were first announced back in March, and were described by the Obama administration as “a down payment” on the POWER+ Plan.

There was plenty of talk in the hallways among my colleagues about POWER+, and I heard a few related questions asked during Q&A section of multiple presentations. But I was surprised that no one on stage that I saw throughout the day mentioned it on their own. My most recent post was all about how POWER+ deserved a warmer welcome, and it seems like that’s still the case.

Even though POWER+ got the cold shoulder, there was a lot of attention given to other worthy issues such as broadband expansion, technology job creation, local foods, youth leadership development and the arts.

Taken as a whole, SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. When so many different players come to the table with varying backgrounds and interests, it’s naturally a delicate process to keep the boat afloat.

It was never a secret that the coal economy was headed for an eventual collapse. Regional production peaked in 1997, but a web of social and political forces have kept clinging to the past. Finally, we’ve reached a place where we see a robust regional discussion and federal programs focused on diversifying the central Appalachian economy.

The role of Appalachian Voices and our allies is, and will continue to be, ensuring that promising initiatives like SOAR include new ideas and ways of thinking are not stuck in that old and tired web that no longer serves the best interests of Appalachian communities.

Duke Energy to close aging Asheville coal plant

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 - posted by brian

Duke Energy plans to retire its Asheville coal plant and build a natural gas-fired facility in its place. The announcement should be celebrated as progress, but it also represents another precarious step toward a future reliant on fossil fuels.

A plan to “end an era of coal” in Asheville and enter an era of natural gas.

In a surprise announcement that some predicted and many have long advocated for, Duke Energy shared plans today to “end an era of coal” in Asheville, N.C., by retiring the coal-fired power plant that sits on the banks of nearby Lake Julian.

The aging power plant, which began operating in 1964, has been a constant target for Appalachian Voices and many of our allies in North Carolina working to address coal ash pollution and promote investments in cleaner energy.

The company plans to spend around $750 million over the next four or five years to retire the coal plant and replace it with a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, nearly doubling the current plant’s capacity. The plans also include building solar generation on the site, but it’s unclear how large — or small — the size of the renewable portion of the project will be.

While the news should be celebrated as progress, it also represents another precarious step along a dangerous road that will prolong our region’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and saddle consumers with long-lived investments in natural gas.

Duke, more than any other southeastern utility, has been at the forefront of the coal-to-gas fuel-switching trend, retiring seven of its 14 North Carolina coal plants in the past five years. The utility is also slated to be the largest customer of the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but, in this case, plans to upgrade an existing natural gas pipeline to supply the new plant.

Even though the company has brought on large-scale solar projects in recent years, Duke’s enthusiasm for clean energy doesn’t come close to its eagerness to expand natural gas generation and infrastructure. That fact is reflected in the mixed responses of environmental groups and clean energy advocates to today’s news.

“The retirement of the Asheville Plant is a step in the right direction, but it is a half measure, undermined by continuing reliance on an economically unpredictable and polluting source of power. Duke can do better, and our community deserves better,” a coalition of groups made up of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance announced in a joint statement. “We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight for clean energy solutions for Western North Carolina.”

According to Duke, electricity demand in the Asheville area has doubled over the past forty years and the Asheville plant is a “must run” facility, meaning it operates around the clock to maintain reliability. But data charted by SNL Energy shows the plant’s capacity factor has been trending down since 2010, likely due to new capacity at the more-economical Cliffside power plant coming online.

Closing the plant will dramatically reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury, and the new natural gas plant will emit about 60 percent less carbon dioxide per-megawatt hour. But its larger generating capacity could mean overall carbon emissions stay about the same.

The cost of retrofitting the plant’s coal ash ponds to comply with the state’s Coal Ash Management Act is sure to have played a role in the decision to retire the plant. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also cited Duke in February for contaminating groundwater at the facility, which could lead to fines.

The Asheville plant is the only facility out of the four deemed “high priority” by the coal ash law that still burns coal. It is also one of the few still-operating plants involved in the federal lawsuit over coal ash pollution that led Duke to plead guilty to nine misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act.

The case for closing the Asheville coal plant is clear. But Duke must do more to meet its promises to North Carolinians. At a time of tremendous opportunity to expand clean energy, America’s largest electric utility has the obligation and more than enough influence to lead.

Residents in Mountain Valley path pipe up at hearing

Thursday, May 7th, 2015 - posted by hannah
The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. Siltation from tree clearing and pipeline construction could further threaten the endangered species. Click to enlarge.

Turnout was tremendous at the first of two hearings this week in Virginia, where federal energy regulators are taking public comments on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Residents of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties and nearby areas told their stories and highlighted their environmental concerns on Tuesday night in Elliston in an effort to make sure the impact study process on the project is thorough.

Most commenters shared common themes: that the companies proposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not be able to carry out their vision for the 330-mile natural gas pipeline without egregiously damaging the area’s ecological treasures, and that the project is not in local residents’ interest and should not be allowed to proceed.

Citizens voiced a wide range of environmental concerns, many of which relate to issues unaffected by the potential rerouting of the pipeline. Among the risks that can only be prevented in a no-build scenario include:

  • Creek and river siltation from the tree clearing and installation process that threatens populations of James River spinymussel in Craig County. This species was also hard-hit by the Dan River coal ash spill in 2014. A precedent exists for protecting these areas from development based on the potential negative outcome for threatened creatures; in the ‘90s a high-voltage transmission project was undone in part due to the anticipated adverse impact on freshwater mussels.
  • Unique caves in the area, including Pig Hole Cave and Tawney’s Cave, have been used for years by cave diving explorers for recreation and have provided research opportunities for Virginia Tech students. While building is not normally allowed over their mapped passages, the proposed pipeline route lies directly over Pig Hole Cave and would make it inaccessible during construction and possibly permanently unsafe. New species of cave-adapted arthropods and other rare specialized lifeforms have only recently been found to exist there.
  • Numerous area homeowners also spoke about the proximity of their homes to the “centerline” or middle of the up-to-40-yard-wide swath proposed for each of the various possible alternative pipeline routes. Homes, wells, gardens, trees and creeks are all in the path of proposed routes. In the event of a pipeline rupture, if the combustible gas the pipeline would carry were to ignite or explode, some neighborhoods would have no road outlet. Local leaders spoke about those fears, adding that the increase in housing in Montgomery County in the past 20 years makes it difficult to avoid these kind of direct impacts by rerouting.

Several speakers described the sense of looming danger generated by the pipeline proposal, and articulated their feelings about the project in memorable ways: as a tentacle of a symbolic Kraken representing the fossil fuel industry seeking greater profits at the expense of communities; as a wrong-headed distraction from the right of residents’ to their own property; and as a destructive force that perpetuates the exploitation of Appalachian counties threatening what is among the nation’s most valued, biodiverse and scenic environments

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has only scheduled hearings for Virginia in Elliston and Chatham this week. Organizers and local leaders are currently petitioning for an extended comment period beyond the current deadline of June 16.

Click here to submit your comment about the Mountain Valley Pipeline to federal regulators.

UPDATE: FERC will also hold public hearings in Weston, W.Va., on May 12 and Summersville, W.Va., on May 13. Learn more here.