Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

North Carolinians speak out against fracking: Are elected officials listening?

Monday, October 20th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

More than two dozen environmental and social justice groups came together recently to hand deliver 59,500 petition signatures to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, calling on him and other elected officials to reinstate the ban on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in the state.

Groups of the Frack Free N.C. Alliance, which include environmental organizations, environmental justice groups and grassroots organizations, have been working diligently all across the state to educate citizens about the potential impacts of fracking and encourage them to get involved. The nearly 60,000 petition signatures are a testament to the strong opposition to fracking throughout North Carolina.

Despite a forecast of rain, the organizations and supporters gathered at the governor’s office last Tuesday to rally and hold a press conference before hand delivering the petitions to McCrory’s staff (the governor, unsurprisingly, was unavailable to receive the petitions). Supporters held anti-fracking signs, images of North Carolina’s unique landscape, and art created by citizens portraying the dangers of fracking and the value of clean water.

The speakers came from all across the state, and included Kathy Rigsbee from Yadkin-Davie Against Fracking, an every-day citizen and mother turned activist, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for N.C., the founding organization of the Frack Free Alliance, and Luke Crawford from EnvironmentaLEE, a grassroots organization in Lee County, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the state.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices' North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the numerous grassroots organizations from western North Carolina that contributed significantly to the petition and the anti-fracking movement sweeping across the state. Those organizations include the Coalition Against Fracking in western N.C., Frack Free Madison County, and community groups from Swain and Jackson counties.

As the sun came out, we began carrying boxes of the signed petitions into the governor’s office. As the petitions were passed from person to person and on into the building, elementary students on a field trip joined us in chanting “Frack Free N.C.!”

Governor McCrory has yet to acknowledge the concerns of the 59,500 signees on the petition, though it is clear that opposition to fracking across North Carolina has grown as more citizens learn about the risks associated with the practice.

In August and September, 1,800 North Carolinians attended Mining and Energy Commission hearings on the proposed rules to regulate fracking. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed fracking. The MEC reports that they received between 100,000-200,000 additional written comments addressing the rules and that the majority suggested the rules be strengthened. According to Commissioner Jim Womack, about half the comments were statements opposing fracking. Womack told reporters that those “didn’t really count.” Clearly, thousands of North Carolinians oppose fracking, the question is, are our elected officials listening to us?

The organizations and citizen groups of Frack Free N.C. promise to continue fighting to protect North Carolina’s air, water, communities, property values and way of life from the dangers of fracking.

The reclamation myth, it’s still happening too

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 - posted by thom

{ Editor’s Note } A 2014 study on post-mining reclamation efforts found that “There is no evidence that mitigation is meeting the objectives of the [Clean Water Act] and looking forward there is no reason to believe this will change unless new mitigation requirements and scientifically rigorous assessments are put into place.”

It seems that whenever a picture of an active mountaintop removal mine site is posted online or shared on social media, someone steps in to comment that coal companies “put it back” or that, a few years after they reclaim the land “you won’t be able to tell the difference.”

For years, Appalachian Voices has been combating misleading claims about reclamation used by the industry and pro-coal politicians — especially the myth that mountaintop removal is necessary because it creates flat land for economic development. In a 2010 survey of mountaintop removal sites, we found that, of the 1.2 million acres of leveled Appalachian mountains, around 90 percent of reclaimed mine sites are not being used for economic development. In fact, most are just rocky grasslands not being used for anything at all.

LEARN MORE: Post-Mountaintop Removal Reclamation of Mountain Summits for Economic Development in Appalachia

Industry pic

The industry argues that it does a good job of reclaiming the land, and will use a handful of good examples of reclamation with a few nice pictures, and pretend that this is the norm. I particularly like this tweet from the West Virginia Coal Association a few weeks back.

As you can see it’s basically a pretty picture of the sun coming through the clouds with a caption that reads “100 Years of Coal Mining and West Virginia Remains Wild and Wonderful. This proves mining is a temporary land use.”

I can’t figure out how this picture “proves mining is a temporary land use.” I suppose the picture shows that companies have not blown up those particular mountains. Or the sky.

The reality of reclamation usually looks more like this…

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Or this…

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Or this…

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The failure to recapture the beauty that was once a 300-million-year-old mountain covered in old-growth, biodiverse forest is tragic, but it’s not the only problem with reclamation. Attempts to mitigate water pollution have repeatedly failed.

A 2014 University of Maryland study shows that mitigation and reclamation have totally failed to protect stream health.

According to the study:

Loss of aquatic biodiversity below [mountaintop removal] mining operations is well documented and there is no evidence that these downstream impacts decline over time–mine sites reclaimed over 20 years ago still contribute to significant degradation of water quality.

Overall the reports provide no evidence that stream mitigations being implemented for coal mining in the southern Appalachian states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia are meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act to replace lost or degraded natural resource values and functions.

LEARN MORE: Mountaintop Mine Reclamation Not Adequately Restoring Affected Streams, Study Finds – Bloomberg BNA

The coal industry is blowing up mountains in Appalachia. They are not putting them back together again. The industry is polluting and burying streams, and they are not finding a way to fix them.

In 2009, the Obama administration promised to overhaul regulations meant to protect Appalachian communities and their waterways from mountaintop removal.

Yet, five years later, mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening. Until the Obama administration and Congress take serious actions, no amount of reclamation is going to fix the problems the mining is leaving behind.

A huge win: Gainesville enacts policy to stop using mountaintop removal coal

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - posted by matt
Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

At a time when Congress can’t seem to conduct even routine business and nearly half of the country still denies climate change, that old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” can seem a little quaint and dated, if not hopelessly idealistic.

But earlier this month, a group of citizens in Gainesville, Fla., proved the truth of those words. Because of the heroic efforts of a small group of citizens, Gainesville became the first city in America to enact a policy to curtail — and possibly eliminate altogether — its reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

A cheer went up in the packed city hall chambers when the city commission voted 5-2 for a policy designed to break the city’s longstanding reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia to power its electric grid. This victory was the culmination of three and a half years of work that included five hearings by the city commission, hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and dozens of meetings with city commissioners.

The policy’s passage, championed by city commissioner Lauren Poe and supported by three Democrats and two Republicans on the commission, proved that bipartisanship is still alive in some corners of the country and that democracy can still work the way it was intended to; responsive to the will of citizens instead of just private interests with the power to make unlimited campaign contributions.

At the hearing on Sept. 18, staff of Appalachian Voices gave commissioners a virtual tour of some of the mountaintop removal mines that had supplied coal to Gainesville in the past. Suppliers included the Samples mine in West Virginia, which the late Appalachian hero Larry Gibson fought for decades to prevent the destruction of his beloved Kayford Mountain. Another supplier was the nearby Twilight Surface Mine, which was responsible for turning the community of Lindytown into a ghost town, as The New York Times powerfully eulogized in this 2011 story.

Use the arrows on the slideshow below to see excerpts of the presentation Appalachian Voices shared with the Gainesville City Commission:

There are no mountains within 100 miles of Gainesville. So how a group called Gainesville Loves Mountains became one of the city’s most active and influential advocacy groups is an interesting story.

The group’s founder, Jason Fults, first became aware of mountaintop removal as a student at Berea College in eastern Kentucky. After graduating and moving back to Gainesville, he was horrified to learn the local power plant operated by Gainesville Regional Utilities, the Deerhaven Generating Station, was purchasing most of its coal from some of the biggest and most destructive mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

But Jason didn’t stop with being horrified; he resolved to do what it takes to break Gainesville’s connection to mountaintop removal, and he found others willing to makes the same commitment. Three and a half years later they succeeded — or at least they’ve come very close. But the battle is not over quite yet. The policy enacted by the city ensures that Gainesville Regional Utilities will not purchase coal mined using mountaintop removal as long as it has bids from other types of mines that are not more than 5 percent higher than bids from mountaintop removal operators.

Based on my experience, that should generally be sufficient to ensure the city does not purchase mountaintop removal coal. If bids from mountaintop removal operators do come in at least 5 percent lower than other bids, however, the utility can come back to the commission to request special dispensation to purchase the cheaper, but in many ways more costly, coal. Several commissioners indicated that they may still very well choose to purchase from the more expensive non-mountaintop removal coal suppliers if that’s the case, but it’s going to require a contentious vote. And, if that time comes, the folks at Gainesville Loves Mountains will undoubtedly pull out all the stops to ensure the city doesn’t vote to purchase mountaintop removal coal.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices' staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices’ staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

The big question is whether other cities can follow Gainesville’s lead. The short answer is that some can, though there are not many other cities served by a municipally-owned utility that operates its own coal-fired power plant and buys coal from Central Appalachia. There are a few such examples — the city of Orlando, Fla., for example — but folks who are customers of private investor-owned utilities or municipal utilities that purchase power from investor-owned utilities will have a very different challenge on their hands if they want to ensure companies like Duke Energy, American Electric Power or Dominion Resources stop purchasing coal from mountaintop removal mines.

The good news is that the city of Gainesville paved the way by coming up with a thoughtful and substantive policy that also provides some protection to ratepayers. That’s important because utilities have successfully used scare tactics about the potential for increases in electricity prices to defeat every previous attempt to pass bills banning the use of mountaintop removal in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. Even the students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill were unable to get a policy passed to ban purchases of mountaintop removal coal from the power plant on campus because of the scare tactics employed by the operators of the plant.

Fortunately, the Gainesville policy provides a model that should alleviate those fears, and we can hope that students at UNC and Michigan State University, where local power plants are still purchasing mountaintop removal coal, will try again now that the City of Gainesville has led the way.

The People’s Climate March: Hope makes a comeback

Saturday, September 27th, 2014 - posted by Maggie Cozens
Approximately 100 Appalachian State University  students traveled to New York for the People's Climate March.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students traveled to New York for the People’s Climate March. Photo by Maggie Cozens.

“I know we’re exhausted; my feet hurt…actually my everything hurts,” said Dave Harman of 350 Boone, as our busload of students headed back toward North Carolina. “But I just wanted to say that this went beyond my wildest expectations. I’m still glowing from today.”

As we slowly wended our way out of Manhattan, tired and feet aching, I found myself struggling to process the overwhelming feeling that pervaded every inch of the nearly 4-mile long procession earlier that day. The feeling saturated every piece of artwork and humble homemade sign, resonated in each drumroll and singing voice, and illuminated the eyes of every one of the 400,000 marchers in attendance. Such was the overpowering feeling of hope at the People’s Climate March.

See more photos from the march.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students took part in Sunday’s march and happily found Appalachia well-represented upon arrival. We could not walk two feet without running into someone carrying a sign calling for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

One of the Appalachian State totems was garnished with a People’s Climate March sign that read “I’m marching for the end of mountaintop removal.” It was one among countless others, and no demographic, environmental or social issue went unrepresented. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, indigenous groups, politicians and celebrities joined together and walked in solidarity. The student section was alight with passionate youth from across the country, eager to roll up their sleeves and build a better future, as bright yellow and orange signs ebulliently bobbed up and down along the sea of marchers like rising suns.

The diversity of the marchers was a beautiful sight to behold, but perhaps more stunning was the common thread running between them. Everyone was united in their confidence to affect change; the understanding that tackling the factors behind climate change — the environmental degradation caused by poorly regulated industries, inadequate government involvement, overconsumption and our growth-obsessed economy — holds the solution to a myriad of interconnected global issues today. It quickly became apparent at the march that climate change is as much a political, social, and cultural issue as it is an environmental one. And that efforts to address the problem could lead to a transformation as expansive as climate change itself.

Later that evening on the bus, Dave mentioned in all his years of activism he had never seen anything like the People’s Climate March. The shift in morale was so strong it was almost palpable. In New York and in every sister march around the world, the air was electrified with hope and faith in the future. This was perhaps no more evident than at 1 p.m., when a moment of silence erupted into an explosion of noise. Every marcher raised their voice in opposition to climate change; shouting for each other, the future, and the planet. Dave remarked that the clamor was hair-raising, a sonic “atomic bomb” filled with promise and power.

After attending Sunday’s march, it is hard to shake that feeling of hope. It is disturbing how lacking it had been beforehand, but its return is beyond welcome and reassuring. In the face of such a daunting and massive problem as climate change, it is easy to throw up your hands in exasperation and become discouraged. But after this weekend we should realize this problem is not insurmountable and, if the numbers are any indication, that no one is fighting it alone.

Click here to submit your comment supporting the EPA’s efforts to act on climate.

We Made History! Highlights from the People’s Climate March

Thursday, September 25th, 2014 - posted by kate

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View more photos of the Appalachian contingent at the People’s Climate March.

Last weekend, Appalachian Voices joined 400,000 people in New York City for the largest climate march in history. And it was truly inspiring.

Kate Rooth, Matt Wasson and Thom Kay were among the AV staff joining the Appalachian contingent at the People's Climate March

Kate Rooth, Matt Wasson and Thom Kay were among the AV staff joining the Appalachian contingent at the People’s Climate March

While massive extractive fossil fuel interests try everything in their power to tighten their grip on our region’s energy future, it’s moments like these that show we are making progress. People from across the country came to the march, including many dear friends from Central Appalachia who are directly impacted by the destruction of mountaintop removal coal mining and our country’s reliance on coal.

We laughed, we cried, we danced and chanted, but most importantly we sent a signal loud and clear to world leaders gathering for UN climate negotiations that action must be taken immediately to avert further impacts of climate change.

The march was more than four miles long and included an enormous variety of people and issues. One contingent of activists supported the clean, renewable power sources that will help address the climate crisis. In the midst of the robust Virginia contingent, dozens of wooden model wind turbines twirled in the breeze. In the middle of the march was a youth contingent which included K-12 students and their families and stretched more than four blocks. The visuals were stunning, the energy was electrifying, and for once, the weather was perfect for a climate march!

The People's Climate March, stretched for nearly four miles and included and estimated 400,000 people. Photo from Avaaz.org

The People’s Climate March, stretched for nearly four miles and included and estimated 400,000 people. Photo from Avaaz.org

Leading the march were communities in the frontlines of the climate crisis. From Black Mesa, to the Gulf, inner city Chicago to the hollers of Appalachia, impacted communities have been standing together as part of the Climate Justice Alliance. It was an honor to stand with Appalachian leaders and support the courageous efforts the frontline communities that were marching.

The People’s Climate March demonstrated that communities are standing together and the immense power of those committed to fighting. Perhaps most importantly, it reminded each of us that we are in this together.

As we continue to fight state-by-state and town-by-town in our region for solutions and strong measures to reduce pollution, this march filled us with inspiration and resolve.

Were you at the march? We’d love to see your stories and memories in the comments.

Mountaintop removal is the 800-pound gorilla at the SOAR Health Impact Series

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

If the SOAR initiative is to go beyond political rhetoric, Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear must take public concerns about mountaintop removal’s health impacts seriously.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

I attended the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit held in Pikeville, Ky., last December. Following Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s Appalachia’s Bright Future economic development meeting, I was excited at the prospects such a large summit might generate.

As a joint effort between U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, it was clear that SOAR had the power to make real change in eastern Kentucky, but only if those involved had the will.

The results of SOAR following the summit have been mixed so far. Several people have pointed out issues with the process — specifically, the stakeholders most involved in SOAR may not accurately represent the needs and concerns of eastern Kentuckians. Since the summit, my hope for the outcomes of SOAR have waned. But when I learned that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, would be visiting eastern Kentucky as part of the SOAR Health Impact Series, I saw an opportunity for the voices of residents from coal-impacted communities in eastern Kentucky counties to be heard.

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

Over the past several years, more than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published linking a range of health problems including above-average cancer and birth defect rates to the presence of mountaintop removal coal mining. Yet just last month, the Obama administration pulled funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for research underway on air pollution from mountaintop removal and its link to respiratory issues. The need for a serious effort to identify and address health issues related to mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia has never been more clear. Despite this, I was not optimistic that Dr. Frieden and Rep. Rogers would address this need during their visit.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Prior to the CDC visit, the SOAR health committee held 11 listening sessions across eastern Kentucky from April through July. Each of the sessions drew an average of more than 20 participants. Although SOAR has thus far limited the role of key community members in leadership positions, the health committee has provided a forum for some community involvement.

The CDC meetings consisted of four sessions — two shorter evening sessions in Somerset and Paintsville, and two longer daytime sessions in Hazard and Morehead. I attended the daytime session in Hazard last Tuesday, where there was standing room only. Several individuals spoke, including Rep. Rogers and several doctors from eastern Kentucky.

As the morning went on, I began to lose hope that environmental concerns would be brought up. Then, Dr. Nikki Stone, the health committee chair and event moderator, spoke about the issues that came up during the listening sessions. She began listing the top 10 concerns that had come up throughout the listening sessions, and much to my surprise, environmental impacts, including air and water pollution from mountaintop removal mines, was the top concern resulting from the listening sessions, tied with a desire for coordinate health programs in public schools.

To be honest, I was stunned. I was so sure that the topic would be avoided at a meeting that attracted so much attention. Suddenly, I was hopeful that the health impacts of mountaintop removal would receive some real attention from those that have the power to address the issue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meeting quickly turned back to lengthy speeches about taking personal responsibility for one’s own health and an announcement of federal funding for the Appalachian Cancer Patient Navigation Project. The talks left me with the distinct impression that those speaking would rather focus on dealing with the prevalence of disease, rather than preventing it.

The Health Impact Series did not improve later that evening in Paintsville. The closest mention of environmental impacts on health came from Rep. Rogers, who referred to dirty streams but then went on to blame water quality degradation on people dumping and straight piping waste into streams. It seemed once again that it was easier to blame eastern Kentuckians, rather than the industry they have been beholden to for generations.

The Opportunity Ahead

There was a strong press presence at both meetings, which may have salvaged some chance of addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, when “asked whether he would support having the CDC study the public health effects of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, Frieden said the agency ‘only goes where it’s invited.’” Following the disappointing Paintsville meeting, I felt like I had one last opportunity to make the most of the meetings and approached Dr. Frieden fully expecting to be turned away. Instead, he listened carefully for a moment and then directed me to his assistant. I spoke with several CDC employees and was disappointed to find that they were unaware of the multitude of health studies linking health problems to mountaintop removal. They did, however, encourage me to contact them directly for follow up on the issue.

Moving forward, Appalachian Voices and our allies intend to follow up with the CDC, to be sure that they are fully aware of the current research that indicates quite clearly that one of the major health issues we should be concerned about in Central Appalachia is mountaintop removal coal mining. We will be sure that the CDC knows that, at least when it comes to the citizens of eastern Kentucky, the CDC is invited to investigate this pressing issue. We will also be sure that the SOAR Health Committee acts upon its finding that citizens are most concerned about environmental impacts on health, because, as the Herald-Leader stated, “when a congressman and governor invite people to ‘listening sessions,’ there’s an obligation to take what they say seriously.”

An activist is born

Monday, August 4th, 2014 - posted by Marissa Wheeler
Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Fend, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Feng, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Last Tuesday, on the first day of the carbon rule hearings at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., I stepped off the Metro full of anticipation for my first-ever public rally for any cause, let alone an environmental one.

I arrived at the Federal Triangle station slightly overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings but, following the sounds of live music to the front of the building, I knew upon first glance that I had found my destination.

On the wide semi-circular lawn, children ran with toy replicas of wind turbines. People of many ethnicities and a range of ages stood chatting and putting the finishing touches on colorful posters. A woman and a young musician led a call-and-response demanding “Clean Energy Now.” And on the street, volunteers handed out Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

I accepted a Moms Clean Air Force sticker from a helpful volunteer and hunted for more free items to show my support. Meanwhile, inside EPA headquarters, Hannah Wiegard and Jeff Feng from Appalachian Voices presented their testimony on the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and the need to take swift action to combat climate change.

Proudly sporting my “I Love Mountains” button, I was ready to hobnob with other Americans advocating for clean energy and climate action including lawyers, career environmental advocates, interns like me, and citizens who traveled great distances to appear before the EPA and raise their voices in support of cutting carbon pollution.

These are the people I surround myself with at home and at school, but I’ve often felt like somewhat of an imposter in their presence. I can’t talk knowledgeably about “carbon capture and sequestration” like they can. I waste far too much water, paper, gas, food and electricity. And this was my first-ever environmental rally. In these kinds of situations, my insecurities tend to build inside me like guilt and create a sense of otherness in my mind between myself and the people I admire and want to emulate.

But that morning, I felt immediately welcomed into the fold because just being there meant that I was contributing to the cause. Building grassroots support and demonstrating the power of people mark the beginnings of social and legislative change, as rally speakers such as Green Latino President Mark Magaña and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus impressed upon the crowd.

For me, catching the spirit and optimism of the rally has given greater clarity to both a collective vision of a clean energy future and what I can do as an individual to help us get there. It’s one thing to wear the pins and stickers; it’s another thing to feel empowered by your peers to take action and work toward a common goal. This sense of belonging is the most valuable thing I’ll take with me from the rally. The free sunglasses are pretty cool, too.

North Carolina “off the sidelines” to fast-track fracking

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 - posted by brian

Four months after a massive coal ash spill devastated the Dan River, and before the state has remedied its coal ash problem, North Carolina is poised to open a new can of worms.

Fracking operations like this on in Texas could soon spring up in North Carolina after Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill lifting the state's moratorium on natural gas drilling. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

Fracking operations like this one in Texas could soon spring up in North Carolina after Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill lifting the state’s moratorium on natural gas drilling. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

On Wednesday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed the Energy Modernization Act, lifting a moratorium on natural gas drilling in the state.

With few obstacles left in the way, test drilling to assess the amount of gas in the state’s Piedmont could occur this fall and fracking could officially begin in North Carolina by spring 2015.

Before reaching the governor’s desk, the legislation was rushed through the state House and Senate and ratified in the course of about 48 hours. The 26-page bill covers everything from exploration and permitting to reclamation and severance taxes.

Now that the bill is law, state-issued drilling permits could come sooner than the legislature previously promised. Oil and gas companies can now receive permits 60 days after the state Mining and Energy Commission’s proposed regulatory program is finalized, even though lawmakers originally said the rules would be reviewed before any subsequent legislation or vote to lift the moratorium took place.

Until recently, North Carolina had no reason to regulate oil and gas drilling, and the rules announced so far align closely with industry interests such as Halliburton and the American Legislative Exchange Council that have put external pressure on the commission.

Gov. McCrory likes to say that North Carolina has been on the sidelines of the U.S. gas boom, spectating while other states reap the economic benefits that can result from rampant natural gas development. But fracking has also burdened communities with the risk of water contamination, air pollution and other environmental and health hazards.

Apparently taking those well-established consequences into account, Gov. McCrory claims North Carolina has learned from other states’ experiences. “The expansion of our energy sector will not come at a cost to our precious environment,” the governor said in a statement. “This legislation has the safeguards to protect the high quality of life we cherish.”

As reassuring as that may sound, the push over the past few years to begin fracking has been mired in the types of missteps, broken promises and conflicts of interest considered characteristic of the state’s leadership of late.

Potential natural gas drilling sites and drinking water supplies. Graphic by Southern Environmental Law Center. Click to enlarge.

Potential natural gas drilling sites and drinking water supplies. Graphic by Southern Environmental Law Center.

The passage of the Energy Modernization Act, viewed as the beginning of the end to the General Assembly’s quest to see drilling begin in North Carolina, is both evidence and a direct result of that process. And a host of provisions that did make it into the final bill seem built to incent natural gas companies to operate in North Carolina.

One provision in the original Senate version would have made it a felony to disclose potentially harmful chemicals used in the drilling process. The penalty was reduced to a misdemeanor in the final bill, but it could still come with jail time, and even in cases of emergency, first responders would have to enter a strict confidentially agreement with permit holders before sharing information about chemicals or health concerns.

The novel approach to protect a company’s frack fluid recipe isn’t all that novel. It’s similar to a section of Pennsylvania’s Act 13, a law passed in 2012. Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez, a Pennsylvania physician specializing in renal diseases, sued the state over its “medical gag order,” which he says abridges his freedom to communicate with his patients and colleagues about fracking chemicals and the health hazards they present to the public. That case went to the state Supreme Court last year.

Like Pennsylvania and other states, North Carolina’s new fracking law prohibits local ordinances that would restrict drilling because it is “the intent of the General Assembly to maintain a uniform system” for fracking statewide. But similar language was struck from Pennsylvania’s laws, and is being challenged in New York.

Less publicized sections of the bill are no less dubious. Our friends at the N.C. Conservation Network who’ve been tracking the issue closely have a helpful breakdown of the bill, which they say does not address the most significant risks fracking poses to our health, communities and the environment.

While most of the attention on fracking in North Carolina is currently on a handful of counties in the Piedmont, the mountains of western North Carolina are not off-limits to gas exploration and drilling in the future. The state plans to analyze rock samples from seven western counties to determine whether there is retrievable gas under North Carolina’s mountains.

The challenges associated with regulating fracking can be as prevalent as the threats that come with it. Across the country, state agencies that regulate oil and gas drilling are spread thin. With recent cuts to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, it’s hard to believe North Carolina would be any different.

The proposed 2014 N.C. Senate budget includes $1.7 million to support oil and gas activities. Nearly a million dollars would be used for additional geological and geophysical analysis of the shale basins in the state and $100,000 of what’s left would be spent to market the state’s untapped shale gas resources. At least this time around, funding for additional agency staff is mostly directed to meet another desperate need: monitoring and better regulating coal ash ponds. But those funds are contingent on Gov. McCrory’s coal ash bill passing.

Poorly regulated, fracking poses intractable risks to water, air and human health – all of which have been demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt. It’s happening in Appalachian states including Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, with operations concentrated in rural, agricultural and coal-mining communities, where residents rely on private well water for drinking and irrigation. And it is creating strife in communities just as other destructive methods of resource extraction such as mountaintop removal coal mining have for decades.

Now, when they should be more concerned with improving rules to protect clean water and remedying coal ash pollution, state policymakers are luring gas companies to North Carolina and welcoming fracking with open arms.

Read more of our coverage of fracking in Appalachia from the Front Porch Blog and The Appalachian Voice.

Acting on Climate: EPA unveils carbon rule for existing power plants

Monday, June 2nd, 2014 - posted by brian
The EPA's plan to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate. Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

The EPA’s plan to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate. Photo licensed under Creative Commons

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announced a plan today to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

The highly anticipated plan is “part of the ongoing story of energy progress in America,” McCarthy said in a rousing speech that covered the host of risks, and opportunities, that come with a changing climate. Not neglecting the significant role coal and natural gas will continue to play in America’s power sector, McCarthy said the plan “paves a more certain path forward for conventional fuels in a carbon constrained world.”

The rule provides states flexibility to meet required reductions — a framework the McCarthy says makes the plan “ambitious but also achievable.” It will likely lead to an increased reliance on less carbon-intensive fuels than coal, including natural gas and nuclear energy, which McCarthy mentioned several times during the announcement. But it should also be a precursor to unprecedented investments in clean energy, deployment of renewable energy sources and the adoption of programs to significantly improve energy efficiency nationwide.

Every American city, town and community stands to benefit from cutting carbon pollution, and Appalachia and the Southeast have abundant opportunities to move beyond both a historical over-reliance on coal, and the destructive methods used to extract it.

Act now to support a strong carbon rule that incentivizes renewable energy development and clean energy jobs for Appalachia.

“Appalachia has traditionally borne the brunt of the damage from the nation’s coal-dependent economy and is suffering the health impacts and environmental and economic devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining and related industrial practices,” said Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

“Energy efficiency is the quickest, cheapest and most equitable way to meet our energy needs while reducing carbon, and it’s a tremendous unexploited opportunity in the Southeast,” Cormons said. “Strong efficiency programs will also boost economic prosperity, creating thousands of jobs. This is especially important in many parts of Appalachia where good jobs are scarce, and lower household incomes preclude too many from the benefits an energy-efficient home.”

Charting the decline in carbon emissions from energy consumption. Graphic by  New York Times using Energy Information Administration data.

Charting the decline in carbon emissions from energy consumption. Graphic by New York Times using Energy Information Administration data

Opposition to the plan will be fierce. You’ve probably noticed that some of coal’s staunchest supporters, the National Mining Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, are already attempting to take the EPA to task for what they say will harm the economy and make little more than a dent in carbon emissions on a global scale.

The EPA is sure to be challenged in court. Luckily, the rule’s legality, in a broad sense, is almost as unambiguous as the science that compelled the Obama administration to take action in the first place.

Tell the EPA you support a strong rule to boost clean energy and cut carbon pollution.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the authority to treat greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants, enabling it to use the Clean Air Act to place limits on them. Then, in 2011, the high court issued a ruling in American Electric Power v. Connecticut that essentially requires the EPA to regulate carbon pollution from power plants.

Even Congress, albeit a past session, deserves a bit of credit. It was the enactment of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that gave the federal government the authority, and the responsibility, to regulate pollutants that it has determined endanger public health and welfare. So

Overall, carbon emissions in the U.S. have declined since peaking in 2007 due to many factors including an economic slump, greater energy efficiency and a growing share of electricity generation coming from natural gas, falling about 12 percent between 2005 and 2012, before climbing 2 percent last year.

But we’re still dumping billions of tons of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. And until a rule for existing plants is implemented, the nation’s fleet of more than 600 coal-fired facilities will face no cap on carbon pollution. Today’s announcement sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate.

Stay tuned for more of our coverage of the rule. In the meantime, read “Confronting Carbon Pollution” in The Appalachian Voice and visit Appalachian Voices’ carbon & climate pages.

Supreme Court Rejects Spruce Mine Mountaintop Removal Case

Monday, March 24th, 2014 - posted by brian
The U.S. Supreme Court won't consider a case alleging the EPA overstepped its authority by retroactively vetoing mountaintop removal permits it deemed unacceptably harmful to water quality.

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t consider a case alleging the EPA overstepped its authority by retroactively vetoing mountaintop removal permits it deemed unacceptably harmful to water quality.

The U.S. Supreme Court says it won’t consider the case of Mingo Logan Coal v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s authority to veto mountaintop removal permits that would cause unacceptable harm to water quality and wildlife.

In this case, the permits in question are for Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine No. 1., which would span more than 2,000 acres and is the largest mountaintop removal mine ever proposed in West Virginia.

The court’s decisions comes almost a year after an appeals court sided with the EPA in the case, which dates back to the agency vetoed permits approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2011.

Appalachian Voices applauds this decision and urges the EPA and the Obama administration to hold strong in their ongoing efforts to protect clean water and Appalachia from mountaintop removal coal mining. As it becomes more difficult for large-scale mountaintop removal projects like the Spruce Mine to move forward, the coal industry will likely become more aggressive and desperate in their attacks.

“The EPA acted in accordance with the law when they vetoed this permit,” says Kate Rooth, Appalachian Voices’ campaign director. “Preserving its ability to do so in the future is critical for protecting vital watersheds and downstream communities threatened by mountaintop removal throughout Appalachia.”

Today’s news is also another indication that the effectiveness of the coal industry’s “war on coal” narrative is waning. Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. shared this statement on his Coal Tattoo post earlier from Jim Hecker of Public Justice — one of the lawyers who worked on the case that initially blocked the Spruce Mine:

“The coal industry has falsely painted the Spruce mine veto as an example of EPA overreach and a ‘war on coal,’ when in fact EPA’s authority to veto this permit is obvious from the face of the statute and EPA’s decision is based on clear scientific evidence of serious environmental harm from mining.”

The yearslong case will now continue in lower courts that have yet to rule on parts of the lawsuit.