Posts Tagged ‘Health’

Reflections from the second SOAR Summit

Friday, May 22nd, 2015 - posted by Adam

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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.

A new challenge to fracking in North Carolina

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by brian
Fracking rig

Clean Water for North Carolina filed a constitutional challenge to the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission’s authority to strike down local ordinances on fracking. Photo by Bob Warhover

Clean Water for North Carolina and three residents of counties where fracking could occur are challenging the authority of the state to preempt local ordinances offering communities greater protections from the practice.

The group’s complaint, which was filed in Wake County Superior Court last Friday, alleges that the law legalizing fracking in the state unconstitutionally grants the Mining and Energy Commission judicial powers, including the authority to determine whether local ordinances restrict fracking and can be overturned.

The complaint cites a section of the North Carolina constitution declaring “the legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from one another.”

“The courts, and not the Mining and Energy Commission, which is stacked with pro-industry legislative appointees, should rule on ordinances enacted by local governments,” Clean Water for North Carolina Executive Director Hope Taylor said in a press statement.

“Last year, tens of thousands of people, including many [Clean Water for North Carolina] members, commented at hearings or in writing to say the Oil and Gas rules do not come close to protecting their communities,” Taylor said. “And yet we’ve been told to accept drilling and fracking 650 feet from our homes, drinking water wells and schools, and 200 feet from our streams. If local governments decide democratically to enact protections that their citizens need, the MEC shouldn’t be able to toss them out.”

North Carolina prohibits local ordinances that could restrict drilling, because, according to the language in the law, it is “the intent of the General Assembly to maintain a uniform system” for fracking statewide. But dozens of North Carolina counties and towns have already passed resolutions calling on the General Assembly to hand over control, while others urge lawmakers to reinstate the ban on fracking altogether.

The challenge follows lawsuits disputing the constitutionality of several state commissions — including the Mining and Energy Commission and the Coal Ash Management Commission — with a majority of members appointed by the legislature.

Appalachian communities at growing risk from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by brian
Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Announcing a new tool to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams

Coal is in the news a lot these days. The market forces and much-needed environmental and health protections cornering the dirty fuel are topics of endless interest as America’s energy landscape shifts toward cleaner sources. And yes, all signs point to coal’s continued decline.

In many ways though, the forces chipping away at coal’s historic dominance are overshadowing another big story — one that Appalachian citizens still need the public and policymakers to hear — about just how much the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal coal mining persist in Central Appalachia.

That mountaintop removal is an extremely dirty and dangerous way to mine coal has never been better understood. The overwhelming body of evidence is built on a foundation of the countless personal stories found in communities near mines and bolstered by dozens of studies investigating disproportionate health problems in coal-producing counties compared to elsewhere in Appalachia. More recently, advocates have employed technological tools to visualize complex data and add another dimension to arguments against the practice.

Appalachian Voices is committed to both creating a forum for those personal stories and sharing the most up-to-date data available about the ongoing risks mountaintop removal poses to our region’s communities and environment. Today, we’re excited to share a web tool we developed to reveal how mining continues to close in on nearby communities and send a resounding message to President Obama that ending mountaintop removal is a must if we hope to foster economic and environmental health in Appalachia.

Explore Appalachian Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal on iLoveMountains.org

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

The centerpiece of “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” is an interactive mapping tool on iLoveMountains.org that allows anyone to explore mountaintop removal’s expansion over the past 30 years.

Created using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, and mapping data and consultation from the nonprofit SkyTruth, the tool gives users greater perspective into the decades-long scourge surface mining has had on the Appalachian landscape and generations of families that live in the region.

The Communities at Risk tool also concentrates on impacts at the community level, where the powerful personal stories that first brought mountaintop removal to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and agenda for environmental change are found.

Fifty communities spread across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are identified by the tool as being the most at risk. By clicking on a community icon on the map, you can see the number of acres classified as active mining within a 1-mile radius of a particular place over time. In some communities, the number has fallen. In others, it has grown dramatically in recent years even as regional coal production has plummeted.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of these communities, sharing local perspectives on how the proximity of mountaintop removal has affected local livelihoods. Our first “featured community” is Inman, Va., a small town in Wise County, where residents have successfully battled back a proposed mountaintop removal mine while experiencing the devastating impacts of another that began operating in the early 2000s. You’ll also see stories about featured communities on AppalachianVoices.org and in upcoming issues of The Appalachian Voice newspaper.

Learn about Inman, Va., from local residents Matt Hepler and Ben Hooper

If you want a fuller picture of the data we used to create the mapping tool, check out the companion white paper, which describes the background, methods, results and implications of our initial research.

Over time, we’ll work with impacted citizens in communities near active and proposed mines to expand the use of the tool and update our maps with current, high-resolution satellite imagery we’ll obtain through a partnership with Google’s Skybox for Good project.

Read our white paper for an in-depth look at the ways mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk.

The constant flow of news describing something close to the death of the Appalachian coal industry could leave outside observers with the impression that the problems of mountaintop removal have been resolved by the industry’s impending collapse. That impression, however, is at odds with the personal experience of many Appalachian citizens, the visible impacts of mining in communities across the region and the data that comprises Communities at Risk.

Visit CommunitiesAtRisk.org to explore the mapping tool, learn more about the 50 most at-risk communities and tell President Obama that more must be done to protect Appalachian communities.

Don’t drink the water

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy's coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking.

Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking. Photo by Avery Locklear

Dozens of residents across North Carolina received notices this week telling them not to drink or cook with their well water due to recent tests which show unsafe levels of contaminants that may be associated with coal ash.

As part of North Carolina’s coal ash law enacted last year, Duke Energy is required to test the well water of residents living within 1000 feet of the massive coal ash ponds that dot the state.

For years, the demands of residents in communities next to coal ash ponds and environmental advocates were ignored by Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite independent water sampling that showed elevated levels of contaminants. Now, more than a year after the Dan River coal ash spill, water testing results are coming back, giving residents and regulators a clear picture of just how widespread the problem is.

Tell Duke Energy to supply residents with safe water!

Residents living near 9 of the 14 coal plants across the state have been notified of exceedances of the groundwater standard for concerning metals such as arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. According to DENR, 87 of the 117 wells Duke tested exceeded North Carolina’s groundwater standards for one or more toxic constituents. Some wells also had high levels of constituents that may be naturally occurring in North Carolina soil, such as iron, manganese and pH.

Duke has been quick to latch onto those exceedances as evidence that the contamination is not from their illegally leaking coal ash ponds. But residents who can see coal ash ponds from their yards and have watched Duke’s smokestacks for decades have little doubt why they are now being told “don’t drink the water.”

DENR officials say they will investigate the source of contamination and, if it is linked to coal ash pollution, Duke will be required to provide residents with clean water. But that reassurance is hardly recompense for North Carolinians who may have been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for an unknown amount of time. And until the source is determined, residents will have to foot the bill for bottled water.

Take action now!

WV to Review Research on Mining Health Impacts

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Kimber Ray

West Virginia’s Bureau of Public Health announced in March that the agency will begin working with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate existing research that links surface coal mining and poor health.

The announcement came from the health agency’s commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta one week after Randy Huffman, secretary of the DEP, also asserted that such studies should be examined. Many citizen and environmental groups have previously expressed frustration with the state’s failure to acknowledge the significance of this research.

Currently under dispute are a series of studies co-authored by Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor at West Virginia University from 2006 to 2013. The coal industry has previously challenged efforts to submit his findings as evidence of the potential impacts of new surface mining permits.

Gupta plans to partner with federal agencies to conduct the research review. No timeline has yet been proposed for the project.

A first for North Carolina, now open for fracking

Monday, March 23rd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Fracking rig

In the face of widespread public opposition and demand for stronger rules, fracking permits can officially be applied for in North Carolina. Photo by Bob Warhover

March 17 marked the first day in history that North Carolina has been fully open to the oil and gas industry for the dangerous, environmentally destructive practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Despite widespread public opposition, Governor McCrory and state legislators rushed to open the state to drilling, ignoring hundreds of North Carolinians who spoke at public hearings across the state and thousands more that sent written comments requesting stronger rules.

Despite legislators’ promises that the rules would be the strongest in the country, the final package leaves much to be desired. The rules lack any provisions to control air pollution and they do not clarify legal confusion about forced pooling, the controversial process by which landowners are pooled into a drilling unit without their consent.

Adding insult to injury, on March 18, the North Carolina legislature passed its first bill since the session began in January, which declares that it is optional for the state Environmental Management Commission to create rules regulating air emissions from fracking operations. Previously, the Energy Modernization Act, which paved the way for fracking in the state, required that the EMC develop regulations to protect communities from air pollution.

North Carolina has very small shale deposits and it is unclear where they are located and how much they will actually produce. What is known is that the shale deposits in North Carolina are closer to groundwater sources than the shale deposits in other states that have already experienced groundwater contamination from failed fracking well cases. Additionally, there are no facilities in North Carolina that can treat the toxic wastewater produced by drilling and there are currently no pipelines to transport the fracked gas.

Combine North Carolina’s weak rules, unclear picture of gas reserves, and a lack of infrastructure to transport what little gas the state can produce, with dropping gas prices and drilling companies operating in the red, and you can be sure that the only drillers North Carolina is likely to attract are wildcatters.

When multi-billion dollar oil and gas companies can’t even drill safely, it seems unlikely that small-time prospectors will take every precaution to protect groundwater and neighboring communities from harm.

Though the moratorium on fracking has been lifted, communities and environmental organizations across the state are prepared to continue fighting. We’ll be watching the Department of Energy Mineral and Land Resources closely for any applications to create a drilling unit or for a drilling permit. If a permit is applied for, we’ll be ready to fight it.

Learn more about the risks of fracking and stay up to date by signing up for “Frack Updates” from Frack Free N.C.

Criminal charges filed against Duke Energy

Friday, February 20th, 2015 - posted by brian
Duke Energy entered a plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve a federal criminal investigation into its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.

Duke Energy entered a proposed plea agreement with prosecutors to resolve federal criminal charges related to its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against Duke Energy for violating the federal Clean Water Act at coal ash sites across North Carolina. The company announced today it has reached a proposed plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve the charges.

According to a Duke Energy press release, the plea agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation.

The charges include multiple misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with last year’s coal ash spill in the Dan River as well as unauthorized discharges at other Duke coal plants in North Carolina. The agreement is subject to review and approval by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Related stories

Coal Ash Management: Long-awaited, still debatedAppalachian Voice reporter Kimber Ray sums up the state of coal ash management at the federal and state levels.

The agreement does not affect state lawsuits against Duke Energy, in which Appalachian Voices and our partners have intervened. It’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is ongoing.

The federal grand jury investigation began last year after 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a retired Duke Energy coal plant into the Dan River.

A statement from Amy Adams, North Carolina Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, and former supervisor with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources:

It’s good to see that federal enforcers have taken this issue seriously by diligently pursuing criminal charges and levying a substantial fine against Duke, and it’s good to see Duke acknowledge its culpability. However, we have yet to see that culpability turn into real action. There are still leaking coal ash ponds at 10 of Duke’s sites, leaving 10 communities in limbo and a lot of ash that must be permanently and safely disposed.

Important questions remain, like exactly how the money will be spent and whether any individuals will be named. But most troubling is the unanswered question of whether DENR was aware of negligence and failed to act, or was unable to recognize the magnitude of the situation in the first place.

Learn more about our work to clean up coal ash pollution. Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

Appalachia’s Health Checkup

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

Region faces escalating medical need, responds with community-based initiatives

By Molly Moore

Some days people meet The Health Wagon at the Lee County airport in southwest Virginia. Other days, it’s the community center in Dickenson County, or a local church. No matter where the mobile clinic vehicle pulls up, local residents step into a small waiting area, where they are greeted by a local volunteer before heading to one of the clinic’s two exam rooms to meet with a nurse-practitioner for a donation-based or free medical appointment.

Nearly 25 years after Sister Bernie Kenny first traveled the mountain roads in a Volkswagen Beetle bringing healthcare to those in need, her ministry has grown into a full-fledged southwest Virginia nonprofit organization with two stationary facilities and two mobile units.

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Volunteers facilitate a vision test at a health fair in Wise, Va., organized by The Health Wagon. Nearly all patients at the free healthcare clinics hosted by the aid organization Remote Area Medical are in need of dental and vision care, says founder Stan Brock. Photo courtesy The Health Wagon

Today The Health Wagon is run by Dr. Teresa Gardner, a family nurse practitioner. She began working alongside Sister Kenny in 1993 and speaks about the region’s health needs with genuine passion and determination.

“I have never seen the need more dire in my 22 years that I have been here,” Gardner says. “The need is phenomenal. We have patients on a waiting list.”

In 2013, The Health Wagon saw 4,167 separate patients and provided $2.2. million in free medical care. The patients visiting The Health Wagon are likely at risk for the same ailments that saddle the region as a whole. Appalachians are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and specific cancers such as lung, colorectal and cervical, according to “Appalachian Health and Well-being,” published in 2012. Kidney disease, mental and oral health, traumatic injuries and substance abuse are also regional concerns.

Dr. Joseph Smiddy, medical director at both the Health Wagon in southwest Virginia as well as Body and Soul Ministries in Belize, says more people in the region are falling out of the healthcare system now than when he began charity work 15 years ago. In his experience, cancers are now being diagnosed later in life than they were several years ago, and dental work is now more expensive relative to the economy. People are not receiving mental health or preventative care, he says, and epidemics of lung disease, diabetes and obesity are worsening.

Learn More

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation publishes annual county-level information about health outcomes and factors that influence health. Explore data about your area at countyhealthrankings.org.

The gap in healthcare coverage is evident at free clinic events that nonprofit organization Remote Area Medical hosts across the country, as hundreds of people wait in line overnight to receive medical care the following day.

Remote Area Medical, based in Rockford, Tenn., formed in 1985 to deliver airborne medical care in developing nations, but began operating in the United States in the early ‘90s. The organization has since hosted 742 events in 11 states. The nation’s largest annual event is held in partnership with The Health Wagon in Wise County, Va. At the RAM clinics, volunteers set up scores of dental chairs and examination facilities, and doctors arrive to donate their services. Some bring their own equipment too; Smiddy arrives with a 70-foot tractor-trailer rigged with two digital X-ray machines.

Most patients who make the early-morning journey to the temporary health clinics are motivated by a pressing need to see the dentist or eye doctor, but while waiting in line they are encouraged to also visit other medical specialists at the event. Through these visits, RAM providers have identified thousands of cases of previously undiagnosed diabetes, hypertension and cancer.
Similarly, every visitor to The Health Wagon is screened for diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary artery disease. The organization also hosts regularly scheduled sessions to address specific issues, such as respiratory disease, wound care and endocrinology — sometimes in collaboration with specialists from the University of Virginia, who provide care remotely via sophisticated, secure video technology.

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A new mobile health unit recently replaced an aging vehicle that had become unsafe to drive. Mobile units allow The Health Wagon to reach patients in remote areas, and also provide low-cost facilities that help keep overhead costs low. Photo courtesy The Health Wagon

Gardner is frank about the Health Wagon’s financial limitations. The economic struggles in southwestern Virginia mean there is extraordinarily high demand for the organization’s services at a time when resources are especially tight. The nonprofit’s capacity is also taxed by the addition of new services such as monthly screenings in Wise to help diagnose cervical cancer and other women’s health issues. Despite this, she says, “We have to do something for these patients because there are patients that are dying here without care.”

Steps Toward Transformation

Margaret Tomann, program manager at the Healthy Appalachia Institute — a collaborative effort at University of Virginia’s College at Wise — acknowledges the need in the region but believes it’s just as important to recognize local examples of success. Indeed, the Healthy Appalachia Institute’s stated goal is “to transform Central Appalachia into a leading model for rural community health throughout the world.”

That transformation can take place on a local level, says Dr. Sue Cantrell, director and acting director of Virginia’s LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau Health Districts. Social and environmental factors such as neighborhood crime and the ability to commute on safe roads are inextricably linked to health outcomes, she notes. For example, obesity leads to a host of health problems, but more kids will walk to school if sidewalks are available and the community is safe.

By examining barriers to positive health choices, these circumstances can be addressed, piece by piece. To encourage morning and early-evening walkers, a greenway trail system in Big Stone Gap now sports solar-powered lights, and Pennington Gap in Lee County, Va., recently received funding to install exercise stations along their walking trails. In addition to countering obesity and heart disease, establishing an active routine can also help people break the cycle of substance abuse.

This holistic approach is being employed across the region. In eight western North Carolina counties, an initiative called MountainWise is surveying the health impacts of a vast suite of community policies — such as transportation and park plans — in an effort to integrate health goals into county and town development.

The ambitious undertaking is the first of its kind in the United States, according to MountainWise, a project of the North Carolina Community Transformation Grant Project and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results of the assessments will be used to facilitate access to healthy food, provide opportunities for physical activity and support tobacco-free areas.

Improvements in physical activity and nutrition are most achievable when there is a solid foundation of education and economic security, says Cantrell. Someone juggling multiple jobs is less likely to have the time and energy for physical activity, she says, and people who succeed in school are more likely to have health insurance — and are better positioned to navigate the healthcare system.

At the Healthy Appalachia Institute, Tomman adopts a like-minded view. After noticing similar patterns of poor health indicators in counties in East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the Healthy Appalachia Institute hosted an event to build cross-state, regional awareness of the issue. Attendees included leaders in health, economic development and education, fields that Tomman says “are so closely intertwined you can’t really do one without the other.”

In one Virginia initiative, more than 20 regional collaborators are creating an outdoor recreation plan called “Health is Right Outside” that combines health and economic goals. The beauty of the Appalachian Mountains offers tourism and economic development opportunities, and Cantrell hopes that efforts to market area trails and rivers to visitors will also entice locals to nearby outdoor activities. “There’s a lot here that the average person living in this area can benefit from and enjoy,” she says.

Cantrell reflects that some actions to improve health must be taken on an individual level, but other changes, such as improving the high school graduation rate or building a trail network, can be accomplished together. “We can do it as a community and impact more people, and potentially their children and grandchildren.”

Hey North Carolina, New York just banned fracking

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014 - posted by brian
Before rushing into fracking, North Carolina could learn something from New York, which just announced it would ban the practice, citing health concerns and uncertain economic prospects.

Before rushing into fracking, North Carolina should look to New York, which just announced it would ban the practice, citing health concerns and uncertain economic prospects. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

New York’s debate over whether or not to allow fracking came to a close today when Gov. Andrew Cuomo sided with the state’s top public health and environmental officials in calling for a ban on the practice.

The governor’s end-of-year cabinet hearing, where the announcement was made, looked like so many other meetings that often end in disappointment. But this one was exceptional for inserting some much-needed truth into the fracking fight that could, just maybe, help other states come to their senses.

During the portion of the meeting on fracking, Joseph Martens, the commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, set the stage during a 10-minute presentation that pretty much served as a debunking of the best arguments for fracking. It was clear that Martens had done his homework before concluding that fracking should not be done anywhere in New York.

Just in terms of practicality, Martens told Cuomo and his fellow cabinet members, more than 63 percent of the Marcellus Shale deposits in New York would be off limits under state rules and local zoning. On top of that, dozens of New York towns — most famously the upstate town Dryden — have already approved their own bans on fracking and took their case before the state’s highest court, which ruled in their favor earlier this year.

Following the court’s decision in June, Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumne told the New York Times, “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.”

Despite the fact that North Carolina’s law prohibits local ordinances that “directly or indirectly” restrict oil and gas drilling operations, towns across the state have approved ordinances or resolutions to discourage or prevent fracking in their limits.

According to Martens, the prospects for fracking in New York are “uncertain at best.” The same could be said of North Carolina, where supporters’ visions of economic grandeur don’t always follow the limitations of the state’s geology.

Martens’ rundown was refreshing for this North Carolinian — it was also a reminder of the disregard and misplaced priorities of many pushing to bring fracking to my beloved state. But New York’s acting health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, who spoke next, might truly be the voice of reason we’re missing in North Carolina.

Zucker, with a stack of reports on fracking’s health impacts in other states piled behind him, said he would not allow his family to drink tap water in an area where fracking took place. The point hit home with Cuomo, who said if Zucker believes fracking could put his children in harm’s way, then no child living in New York should be put in that position.

If no child in New York should be put at risk of contaminated water and the other threats that come with fracking, neither should North Carolina’s kids, nor those living in areas already ravaged by poorly regulated drilling.

Former New York Gov. David Paterson first imposed the state’s moratorium in 2008 while the state Department of Environmental Conservation studied fracking in the years leading up to today’s decision. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and the state General Assembly, on the other hand, have rushed headlong toward fracking while requiring surprisingly little study for a state with no experience regulating it. Drilling could begin in North Carolina as early as this spring.

The latest fumble related to fracking in North Carolina came today too. Just as New York announced its ban, controversial fracking regulations in North Carolina sailed through final review against the recommendations of the Rules Review Commission’s staff attorney, who said Mining and Energy Commission staff emailed her 100 rules that were riddled with errors at 2 a.m. on the day of the deadline.

Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who attended the review told the News & Observer the latest misstep is basically par for the course at this point.

“All of the issues just highlighted how rushed the whole process was,” she said.

Coal ash cleanup still contested in North Carolina

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - posted by sarah
 Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

In two weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will finally release the first-ever rule regulating the storage and disposal of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal. For years, communities and environmental groups across the country have pushed the EPA to finalize the regulations, and now, due to a court ordered mandate, the rules are expected to be released on Dec. 19.

In the years following the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., the EPA repeatedly delayed finalizing a coal ash rule, allowing the dangerous waste to sit in unlined landfills and contaminate groundwater at sites across the country. As a result, there have been more coal ash disasters, including the February 2014 spill into the Dan River at Duke Energy’s plant in Eden, N.C. A new study conducted by Wake Forest University research biologist Dennis Lemly puts the cost of the Dan River spill at $300 million.

Spurred by the devastating Dan River spill, enormous public outcry, and a federal criminal investigation into the ties between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, state lawmakers set about writing their own coal ash regulations prior to the EPA rule’s release. The result was not what North Carolinians hoped for.

The Coal Ash Management Act, which became law in September without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature, only requires the full cleanup of four out of the 14 coal ash storage sites in the state. The fates of the remaining 10, including Belews Creek (home to the the largest coal ash deposits in the state) have been left in the hands of a Coal Ash Commission, which may allow sites to be capped in place, a method of coal ash storage that does not eliminate the possibility of groundwater contamination.

McCrory did not sign the bill because he felt that the Coal Ash Commission was unconstitutional since a majority of its members were appointed by legislators and not the governor. On Nov. 13, McCrory and former governors James Hunt and James Martin sued the General Assembly, stating that the commission has been tasked with carrying out executive branch functions, as well as functions normally overseen by state agencies such as DENR. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, who are listed as defendants in the case, issued a statement opposing McCrory’s lawsuit as costly and time-consuming.

Despite the weaknesses of the Coal Ash Management Act, the law has already forced Duke Energy to begin cleaning up the coal ash at four high-priority sites, and to submit preliminary cleanup plans and groundwater assessment plans for the remaining 10. But now new controversies are emerging over where the company plans to relocate its waste.

Last month, Duke announced plans to move 2.9 million tons of ash from its Riverbend and Sutton plants to former clay mines in Chatham County and Lee County. Citizens in both counties are upset by the proposal, stating that they feel blindsided and citing the lack of an environmental or health impact study as problematic. In Chatham County, some residents already live near coal ash ponds located at Duke’s Cape Fear plant, which are not currently designated for cleanup.

Duke Energy contends that the clay mines are ideal for coal ash storage because of their close proximity to railways and the added environmental protection of impervious clay. The company says it will put in liners and install groundwater monitoring systems at the sites.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, millions of tons of coal ash precariously stored along North Carolina’s waterways will have to be moved somewhere. But the unfortunate reality of the law is that many previously unburdened communities and others already burdened by toxic waste dumps may be forced to house some of the ash. Ideally, most of the coal ash will remain on Duke Energy-owned property, but what cannot safely stay on Duke’s land will have to go somewhere. Every North Carolinian has a ton of coal ash to their name, but not every North Carolinian will have to deal with their ton.

In addition to considering new landfill sites, Duke Energy is also looking into the potential of beneficial reuse of coal ash.

If the EPA’s coal ash rule is weak, it will not protect communities from potentially dangerous coal ash landfills or coal ash reuse. Though there are no ideal solutions for the toxic waste, moving forward with the understanding that the substance is indeed hazardous would lead to more safeguards for human health.

If you haven’t already, take a moment to think about why you care about coal ash pollution and explore this topic with others. As North Carolina and the rest of the country move toward coal ash cleanup, it’s more important than ever for us to stand united to demand the safest storage possible.