Posts Tagged ‘EPA’

Coal Ash Rule reaches White House for final review

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 - posted by brian
After four years of hand wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

After years of hand-wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

On Monday night, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a long-awaited rule to regulate the disposal and storage of coal ash to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review.

“We are pleased to see the draft rule move into the final phase of review needed for its release in December,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator.

“Having experienced the consequences of poor enforcement and weak or non-existent state regulations, North Carolina serves as a clear example of why states must have federal baseline standards for coal ash,” Adams says. “We must place our hope in the strength of the EPA rules and the resolve of the federal government to protect citizens from this toxic waste.”

Observers say the administration should have enough time to finalize the rule by the EPA’s court-ordered deadline of Dec. 19, which the agency apparently “fully expects” to meet.

Until then, however, we won’t know much about how far the rule will go to protect communities across the United States from coal ash pollution.

Infographic: The Truth About Coal Ash

At least for the next several weeks, the substance of the rule is still subject to change and there are a few different ways it could go. Environmental groups have for years pressured the EPA to regulate coal ash as the dangerous substance that it is. This option would put the rule under the hazardous waste program of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act’s Subtitle C. Utilities and other industries hope the rule will regulate coal ash under Subtitle D of RCRA, which emphasizes state oversight and enforcement through citizen lawsuits.

In both scenarios, the EPA says it won’t regulate the use of coal ash in concrete and other construction material, or as fill material — the latter will fall under the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s upcoming Mine Fill Rule. Beyond that, the description of the rule on OMB’s website offers little insight, which may be just how the White House wants it.

As Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans points out, the OMB review process is “a black box — opaque, inscrutable and exceedingly dangerous. Rules never come out the way they go in — the offices of OMB are littered with crumpled pages of strong rules gone soft after revision by the White House.”

Evans uses an example from 2009, when former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent the White House a plan to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste following the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Timeline: Five years after the TVA coal ash disaster, what do we have to show for it?

The EPA received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, and thousands attended public hearings to support stronger protections. But heavy lobbying by the coal and utility industries ultimately weakened the administration’s resolve.

Since then, the EPA hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the status of the rule. In fact, had it not been for a lawsuit brought against the EPA by Earthjustice on behalf of Appalachian Voices and other environmental and public health groups last year, the timeline for a final rule might still be murky.

While unavoidable, Evans says the OMB review “introduces uncertainty at the end of a rulemaking process that must, by law, be based on science and transparency and governed by the requirements of the enabling statute.”

The evidence that coal ash poses significant risks to human health is abundant, and the need to do more could hardly be more urgent. The White House should listen to the thousands of citizens demanding strong protections against coal ash pollution.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to clean up coal ash.

A Washington Post editorial on mountaintop removal’s dirty consequences

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 - posted by thom
The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

Today, the editorial board of The Washington Post published a strongly worded condemnation of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The piece begins with what we all know:

“For decades, coal companies have been removing mountain peaks to haul away coal lying just underneath. More recently, scientists and regulators have been developing a clearer understanding of the environmental consequences. They aren’t pretty.”

As evidence, the editorial highlights two recent studies that we’ve also covered here. First, the U.S. Geological Survey’s findings that pollution from mountaintop removal is devastating fish populations in Appalachian streams. We summed up that research on this blog in July:

Over the summer, a U.S. Geological Survey study compared streams near mountaintop removal operations to streams farther away. In what should be “a global hotspot for fish biodiversity,” according to Nathaniel Hitt, one of the authors, the researchers found decimated fish populations, with untold consequences for downstream river systems. The scientists noted changes in stream chemistry: Salts from the disturbed earth appear to have dissolved in the water, which may well have disrupted the food chain.

The second study the editorial points to is new research out of West Virginia University that found dust pollution from mountaintop removal promotes lung cancer. We wrote last week:

The Charleston Gazette reported on a new study finding that dust from mountaintop removal mining appears to contribute to greater risk of lung cancer. West Virginia University researchers took dust samples from several towns near mountaintop removal sites and tested them on lung cells, which changed for the worse. The findings fit into a larger, hazardous picture: People living near these sites experience higher rates of cancer and birth defects.

We’re glad one of the largest newspapers in the country is paying attention, even when many policymakers are not. The editorial does, however, give a bit too much credit to the Obama administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their actions to reduce the environmental and human toll of mountaintop removal. Actions have been taken, certainly, but mountaintop removal is still happening in Appalachia.

With the mounting scientific evidence that mining pollution is decimating fish populations, causing air and water pollution, wiping out trees and mountains, and promoting a host of human health problems, there is no excuse for the Obama administration to allow mountaintop removal to continue.

Take a moment to let the president know that Appalachian communities are still being put at risk.

One Artist’s Experience with Coal Ash

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Caroline Armijo

Editor’s Note: Caroline Armijo began an environmental justice art project after seeing many friends and family die from cancer in her North Carolina community, near one of the state’s largest coal ash impoundments. The Belews Creek coal ash ponds near her community are not among those designated for full cleanup by the recent state coal ash bill. In this excerpt from Armijo’s website, she describes the circumstances that shaped her paper sculpture creation, titled “Gray Matter.” Read the full post at carolinearmijo.com.

In my five years in Washington D.C., I have only known three people with cancer, and only one of those have died. In the last six months alone, I have known five people who have died from my hometown in Stokes County, North Carolina.

[In 2007 the EPA reported that] coal ash gives you a one in fifty chance of getting cancer. Unfortunately, the statistics seem to be much worse at home than estimated in the published reports. When I discussed this with a friend from home, she said that her prayer group included two people with cancer out of four.

Photo by Caroline Armijo

Rolls of collected grave rubbings bound by red stitching give structure to this hollowed-out book. The rubbings were created from the headstones of mixed-media artist Caroline Armijo’s friends and family members, whom she suspects were poisoned by coal ash. Photo by Caroline Armijo.

Maybe I feel so strongly about this after watching my dad’s twin sister, Cheryl, fight a courageous battle against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She passed away in April 2006, after I moved to D.C. the previous year. I was six hours away from my family. It was one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with.

A couple of years later, her neighbor Jackie, from directly across the street, died of the exact same kind of cancer. They could see each other’s houses from their front windows. Cancer is not contagious. What are the chances of that happening?

I did what I do when I don’t know what else to do. I began working on an art project that ultimately became Gray Matter. I had partially excavated/destroyed the book, Your God Is Too Small, a couple of years ago; it was in two pieces and looked like a couple of capital D’s. I went to the studio, picked up the book, gathered my scalpel (a real surgeon’s knife) and blades, and headed home with all of these lost loved ones in my mind.

Employees of DEP-certified lab conspired to violate Clean Water Act

Thursday, October 9th, 2014 - posted by brian
An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act.

An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act. Photo from Flickr.

We learned some unsettling news from West Virginia yesterday afternoon. The Charleston Gazette reports that an employee of a state-certified company pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act after he faked compliant water quality samples for coal companies between 2008 and 2013.

John W. Shelton, who worked as a technician and then a field supervisor for Appalachian Labs Inc., a Beckley, W.Va., firm, admitted to diluting water samples taken from mine pollution discharge points with clean water, among other unlawful measures taken, to ensure pollution levels were in compliance with permitted limits. Prosecutors say Appalachian Labs conducts water sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia, but for now it’s unclear what mine sites or coal companies could be implicated in the case.

As Ken Ward Jr. points out in The Gazette, this crime is a serious cause for concern, since state and federal agencies rely heavily on self-reported data to determine if coal companies are obeying the law. But honestly, while we’re appalled, it is hard to be surprised by this latest discovery. We have some experience with misreporting of water monitoring data that has taken place in Central Appalachia in recent years.

The way this story is coming together suggests a frightening collusion between employees at a lab that maintained certification from DEP. We know from the plea agreement that Shelton did not act alone. Check out the section titled “The Conspiracy to Violate the Clean Water Act” that begins on page 4. But the truly damning language comes in the following section, which states the “objects of the conspiracy were to increase the profitability of Appalachian by avoiding certain costs associated with full compliance with the Clean Water Act … and to thus encourage and maintain for Appalachian the patronage of [its] customers.”

Shelton faces up to five years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. The investigation into Appalachian Labs, however, is ongoing and is being handled by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, the FBI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Following is a statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:

The discovery that a lab employee in West Virginia knowingly altered sampling procedures to assure that monitoring reports submitted for coal companies would be in compliance with the Clean Water Act raises serious questions about the reliability of monitoring reports for the coal industry across Central Appalachia.

False reporting of water quality data from mines in Central Appalachia is not unheard of. In 2010, Appalachian Voices uncovered water monitoring reports that contained duplicated data for the three largest mountaintop removal companies in Kentucky. During the period they were submitting erroneous monitoring reports, these companies never reported a single pollution violation.

No criminal charges have been brought in Kentucky in relation to those cases. In light of the charges brought in West Virginia, however, we have to wonder how widespread these criminal practices are. This shocking discovery further highlights the extreme need for state agencies to seriously reevaluate their enforcement efforts and for the EPA to step in when the states do not properly enforce the law.

Updated Oct. 21: Under oath in federal court, Shelton told a judge that coal companies “put a lot of pressure” on labs to get good water data. Read more in The Charleston Gazette.

To tell the truth

Friday, August 22nd, 2014 - posted by tom
AV's Director of Programs Matt Wasson testifies before Congress

Appalachian Voice’s Director of Programs Matt Wasson testifies before Congress about the burden of mountaintop removal coal mining on Appalachian communities

Last month, our Director of Programs Matt Wasson got the chance to tell a rapt audience in Washington, D.C., that the emperor has no clothes. The audience was the U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, the reporters in the room, and anyone who happened to be watching on CSPAN.

The majority members of the committee had called the hearing in an attempt to portray federal environmental protections as overly burdensome and to trumpet state efforts to “streamline” them. As Matt described in his testimony, however, the facts for the people living in the Appalachian counties most heavily impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining under the ostensibly watchful eye of state agencies are these:

  • They are 50% more likely to die from cancer than others in Appalachia
  • Their children are 42% more likely to be born with birth defects
  • They have a life expectancy far below the national average and comparable to those in El Salvador and Vietnam.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, picking up on Matt’s revelations, noted the similarly atrocious handling by North Carolina officials — in the absence of any federal rules on coal ash — of the catastrophic Duke Energy coal ash spill in February. In the end, the hearing turned into an indictment of the fallacy that states can be counted on to defend their citizens against the profit-driven vagaries of the coal industry and energy giants like Duke.

And while Matt had a rare opportunity to provide a reality check in the ceremonial milieu of a congressional hearing room, it’s the people living in places like Wise County, Va., Pike County, Ky., and Stokes County, N.C. (the site of Duke’s largest coal ash pond), who know this reality better than anyone. It’s their voices, their courage and their persistence — in combination with technical experts like Matt speaking truth to power — that will ultimately bring about real change in their communities.

It’s still happening …

Friday, August 15th, 2014 - posted by thom
Click to enlarge. Photo by Lynn Willis; Flight by Southwings

Click to enlarge. Photo by Lynn Willis; Flight by Southwings

Surface coal mining has been going on in Appalachia for a long time. If you live in the part of central Appalachia that produces coal, it probably feels like it’s been going on forever. The regulations have been modified a few times, the markets have had their ups and downs, and some of the names of the coal companies are different than they used to be.

Aside from that, not much has changed.

In 2009, there was a great deal of excitement about early conversations with Obama administration officials. The previous eight years had been a nightmare for Appalachian community groups fighting against mountaintop removal coal mining. Finally, there were people in the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior who seemed eager to hear from communities and make some real changes. Yet, five years later, mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening in Appalachia.

A few weeks ago, Southwings took my colleague Amy Adams and photographer Lynn Willis on a flight over mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia. The images are hard to look at, not because they show anything new, but precisely because they are more of the same. Mountains continue to be deforested, blasted apart, and dumped into nearby valleys and streams.

I always find it interesting to hear from folks in our movement describe what it was that motivated them to become active in fighting against mountaintop removal mining. There are all sort of answers, including: “It was happening in my backyard,” and “I heard a presentation from impacted Appalachian residents.” For me, it was a mix of things, starting with meeting some residents of eastern Kentucky.

This image, however, is what made it all click in my mind.
5000sq miles of WV

That’s a Google Earth satellite image of approximately 5,000 square miles of central Appalachia (roughly the size of Connecticut). Notice those grey splotches. Those pock marks. Those coal tattoos. Each of those giant marks on the earth is a mountaintop removal coal mine.

The scale and pervasiveness of the destruction is almost impossible to comprehend. The satellite image is evidence of an ongoing crime against nature that regulators and policy makers are astonishingly allowing to continue.

Understanding the extent of the mining is an important step to understanding the connection between mining pollution and the Appalachian health crisis occurring across 50 counties. Blowing up more than 500 mountains, burying more than 2,000 miles of streams, and desecrating over 1 million acres of land cannot be done without polluting the air and water necessary to human health. That’s why there’s a close link between mountaintop removal mining and elevated rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and birth defects throughout the entire region.

Yet, mountaintop removal is still happening.

Appalachians are not going to give up, and neither is Appalachian Voices. Federal agencies can still take major steps to ending mountaintop removal, and we all need to do what we can to make sure they do.

>> Learn more about mountaintop removal mining.

Seleni-what?

Monday, August 11th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

A little-known pollutant has big implications for the health of Appalachian streams

By Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist for Appalachian Voices

Illustration by Jack Rooney

Illustration by Jack Rooney

Most people have probably never heard of selenium, but for coal operators and fish it is a big deal.

The mineral selenium occurs naturally and is necessary for life in extremely small amounts, but it is toxic to aquatic life even at very low levels. Once in the environment, selenium accumulates in birds, fish and other aquatic organisms, building up to toxic levels in their tissues. It is especially harmful to fish, causing reproductive failure, deformities and even death.

In 2012, Patriot Coal Corp. agreed to phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in order to resolve $400 million in liability for selenium pollution cleanup. Many coal mines and coal ash ponds release selenium, but it is difficult and expensive for companies to remedy the problem because even small amounts can be hazardous.

A brief, high discharge of selenium into a stream might not be that toxic at first. Yet over time selenium deposits in the stream’s soils can be absorbed through an organism’s diet and build up to toxic levels in insects and fish.

Duke Energy’s Dan River coal ash spill this past February is a good example. Although selenium concentrations in water downstream from the spill were relatively low, the selenium in the coal ash that coated the bottom of the river for dozens of miles poses a long-term hazard for fish and other aquatic life.

Selenium is expensive to remove from water, and its effects on the environment are complicated. This makes water quality standards for selenium a prime target for attacks from industries who wish to avoid water treatment costs and regulators who are easily bogged down in complicated science.

There have been quite a few strikes on selenium regulations in recent years, and many of them have focused on changing the basis of water quality standards for the mineral from the amount of selenium in the water to the amount found in fish tissue. Once adopted by individual states, water quality standards are used to determine which streams are impaired and to determine the amount of pollution allowed in permits. Every state with mountaintop removal coal mining has made some attempt to change its selenium standards in recent years, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tried several times to change the national standards.

A fish tissue-based standard seems to make sense from a purely scientific perspective, since selenium accumulates in fish over time. Yet these standards add complexity and costs to already underfunded and overworked environmental agencies. The changes also make it much harder for citizens to enforce these standards under the Clean Water Act because of the increased cost and difficulty of collecting fish for testing.

Collecting fish creates its own set of problems. Extremely polluted streams might not have any fish at all, or the only fish surviving might be less-sensitive species that accumulate selenium levels in their bodies at a slower rate. Repeatedly gathering fish from streams with selenium problems could also further stress those fish populations. Collecting fish for scientific purposes requires special equipment such as an electro-shocker and special permits that may not always be available. The process is also more time-consuming than collecting water samples. And even when specimens are collected, it is impossible to know how long a certain fish has been near a particular pollution discharge point.

Late in 2013, Kentucky proposed, and EPA approved, weaker state selenium standards that rely on fish-tissue testing. Appalachian Voices, along with a number of partner organizations including the Sierra Club, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity — represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates — has filed a lawsuit challenging these changes.

The groups argue that the new standards are too weak to serve their intended purpose, and that the rules violate the Endangered Species Act because the EPA failed to consult the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as required by law. Fish and Wildlife has serious concerns about the new rule and stated in a letter to the EPA that the Kentucky standards “may result in negative impacts to federally listed species.”

In May, the EPA released a draft of a new national water quality standard for selenium. The agency has proposed to replace the single standard for long term toxicity of five parts per billion in water with a complex set of five different numbers and one formula.

EPA’s newly proposed standard is actually slightly weaker than the version the agency proposed back in 2002. The new draft standard includes an 8.1 parts per million criteria for whole fish, compared to the slightly stronger 2002 proposed standard of 7.9 parts per million. Among the many scientists and agencies that criticized the 2002 proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service told the EPA that “Based on a large body of scientific evidence, the service believes these criterion values will not protect federally listed fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, the service believes these values are not even sufficient to protect the aquatic life for which the criteria were developed.”

In 2009, Tennessee legislators tried and failed to weaken that state’s selenium standards to those that the EPA previously abandoned in 2002. As a leading expert on selenium, Wake Forest University associate professor and U.S. Forest Service biologist Dr. Dennis Lemly told Tennessee lawmakers, “Based on the work I’ve done, 7.9 would kill a lot of fish.”

The federal environmental agency’s newly proposed selenium standards still face a peer review process and public comment period before they can be finalized.

Prevailing Politics Influence State Reactions to EPA Carbon Rule

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

By Brian Sewell

Flexibility: it’s the foundation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants.

“That’s what makes it ambitious, but achievable,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said when she unveiled the plan on June 2. “The glue that holds this plan together, and the key to making it work, is that each state’s goal is tailored to its own circumstances, and states have the flexibility to reach their goal in whatever way works best for them.”

But the politics surrounding federal climate action also vary widely among states. Two months after the plan’s release, some states are optimistic, touting how much carbon they have cut in recent years as a good start. Others are positioning themselves for a fight.

Changing Political Climates

With Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in office, Virginia could be the most amenable state in the region to the EPA’s efforts. Gov. McAuliffe announced his support for regulating carbon emissions late in his campaign and recently reinstated a 35-member state commission on climate change made up of elected officials, industry representatives, environmental advocates and scientists.

In North Carolina, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s on-the-record comments about climate change are scant. He has claimed at various times that “there has always been climate change,” or that it is “out of our control.” But if actions speak louder than words, the McCrory administration’s approach is telling.

This year, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources removed documents about climate change from its website, including the state’s Climate Action Plan, which took dozens of experts years to research and compose.

Gov. McCrory also recently joined eight other Republican governors in penning a letter to President Obama that claims the EPA’s carbon rules would “largely dictate” the type of electric-generating facilities states could build and operate, and criticizes the president for seeking to “essentially ban coal from the U.S. energy mix.” Rather than suggesting improvements, the governors demand that the regulations be thrown out altogether.

Other Republican governors including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam were absent from that letter. While the Tennessee legislature is far from active on climate change, major cities in the state such as Nashville and Chattanooga have released their own climate action plans. And the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally owned utility that powers Tennessee and portions of six other states, expects its emissions to be half of what they were at their peak in 1995 by 2020, according to a statement released the day the EPA’s plan was announced.

In West Virginia and Kentucky, the second and third largest coal-producing states in the country, regulations that could negatively affect the coal industry elicitw particularly intense backlash. The two states recently joined a lawsuit against the EPA brought by coal CEO Bob Murray, who says the agency is lying to the American people about the existence of climate change.

The states claim that what the EPA is attempting “is nothing short of extraordinary” and that the agency wants to impose “double regulations” on coal plants since harmful pollutants other than greenhouse gases are already regulated under another section of the Clean Air Act. But the courts have repeatedly ruled that the EPA has the authority and obligation to regulate carbon pollution.

Earlier this year, Virginia passed legislation to require a cost-benefit analysis of regulating carbon dioxide. And West Virginia and Kentucky made laws directing state agencies to develop alternative standards and compliance schedules.

Regardless of how outspoken they are, state leaders opposing the EPA may be out of step with voters. According to a June poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, 67 percent of Americans either strongly or somewhat support the EPA’s plan and 29 percent oppose it.

The EPA is expected to finalize the rule by June 2015 and states must submit their implementation plans by June 2016.

Court Favors EPA on Mountaintop Removal

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

By Brian Sewell

A federal appeals court ruled unanimously in July that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to coordinate with other federal agencies during the mountaintop removal permitting process.

In 2009, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began coordinating their review of permits associated with large-scale mountaintop removal coal mining. Environmental groups say the process has led to greater scrutiny of the environmental impacts of valley fill permits, which allow coal companies to dump mining waste into adjacent valleys, burying headwater streams. But the enhanced permitting process was challenged by the coal industry and several coal-producing states.

The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity, an important water quality indicator, is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge from the coal industry.

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.