Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

Two N.C. Counties Make Energy Efficiency History

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 - posted by interns

Two counties in western North Carolina — Yancey and Mitchell — are the first in the United States to pass resolutions supporting the development of an “on-bill financing” program for energy efficiency improvements by their electric utility.

Both counties are served by French Broad Electric Membership Corporation. The resolutions, proposed by Appalachian Voices, express support for French Broad developing a program that provides its members with the upfront cost of home energy upgrades, which the member repays through a monthly charge on their electric bill. The upgrades would save enough energy to reduce the member’s average bill, even with the repayment charge, and the program would be accessible to renters and low-income households.

In addition to relieving the burden of energy costs and improving the quality of living for residents, such a program would also stimulate local economies.

The Yancey County Commission was the first to pass the resolution on February 13. There is a great need for energy efficiency in Yancey County. According to the U.S. Census, 77 percent of the county’s occupied housing stock is more than 25 years old. Additionally, nearly one in every six households in Yancey County live in poverty. A study conducted by Accounting Insights found that county residents living below 50 percent of the poverty line spent an average of 44 percent of their income on energy costs.

The Mitchell County Commission passed its resolution on March 6. The county faces similar housing conditions, poverty rates and energy cost burdens as Yancey County.

Together, Yancey and Mitchell counties make up almost half of French Broad’s membership. Madison County, home to another 34 percent of the electric cooperative’s members, is scheduled to consider the same resolution on April 18.

French Broad currently offers an on-bill financing program for mini-split heat pumps, but has not implemented a more comprehensive and inclusive energy efficiency financing program, despite support from community stakeholders.

The resolutions in Yancey and Mitchell counties show that community leaders believe that addressing energy costs is an important part of strengthening local economies and improving the lives of local residents, and that French Broad could play a central role in achieving those goals.

To get involved, contact Lauren Essick at (828) 262-1500, or via email at Lauren@appvoices.org.

Students speak out against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline: Why collaborative resistance matters

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017 - posted by guestbloggers

By Cassidy Quillen and Olivia Nelson

Photos by Greg Yost.

Photos by Greg Yost.

We arrived in the early evening, three days before the Walk to Protect our People and the Places we Live finished. The walkers were circled up, weary yet excited, going over highlights from the day’s route and the breakdown for the evening. That night we were sleeping in a church community center, sleeping bags already lined up on the floor and Seeds of Peace East preparing dinner for the 40 or so people staying that night. Not many people are even sure what day it is or how long they’ve been walking – we found out later most stayed six or more days – but they’re excited about vegan shepherd’s pie and attending the teaching event hosted by the Lumberton community that evening.

On a broad level, Divest Appalachian traveled to Robeson County, N.C., and walked because we know that we need everyone mobilizing in this political movement to halt the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. With President Trump’s push to expedite oil and gas pipelines, and the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline listed as a top priority infrastructure project, there is no room for neutrality or complacency. Everyone at the action reflected similar values. The walkers came from across North Carolina, and ranged from students to retirees, united to get the message across that this pipeline is not wanted by the people of North Carolina.

Zooming in a bit more, it’s not hard to recognize that the people who would be impacted most by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have faced a long history of exploitation by extractive industries: African-Americans, Native Americans and low-income citizens. Lumberton has historically been home to people of color and is considered tribal land to the Lumbee — a Native American tribe not federally recognized, overriding their sovereignty and ability to block the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. To walk for someone else’s rights is to listen to and represent their community’s values, as well as their history. One of the foundations of the walk was getting involved with local organizers such as Mac Legerton, executive director of the Center for Community Action.

Legerton led events that got both the walkers and local people involved in speaking out against the pipeline from a mutual point of understanding. One such event was a community teach-in. A series of speakers, including academics and representatives of the Lumbee American Indian Nation, spoke on how the natural gas will not be used in the counties the pipeline runs through, is not needed to meet demand, and how to stay involved once the walkers went home. We know, as students of sustainability, that the gas that would flow through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is not needed and would not be coming from North Carolina, nor would it serve those along the route. This teach-in brought valuable information and examples of the dangerous effects of pipelines on the communities they divide. Once we peel back that layer, we are left with racist, profit-driven industry policies that are wholly unacceptable.

Focusing in on western North Carolina highlights Duke Energy’s monopolizing power across the state; the proposed pipeline would cause utility rate hikes statewide. Several of the students who traveled from Boone have families and homes in proximity to the route of the proposed pipeline. As Divest Appalachian and Boone Rising handed out information about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at Appalachian State University leading up to the walk, we discovered that many students on campus did not even know that the pipeline proposal exists, nor that it would impact their families in a variety of environmental and economic ways. How many people have connections to the land, history and loved ones that live along the proposed pipeline route, yet do not even know what’s coming their way?

Finally, we look at the place Divest Appalachian’s students call home: Appalachian State University. According to the UNCMC 2015 Annual Report, our school system has $236.8 million of assets invested in energy and natural resources — an “asset class comprised of investment managers that purchase oil, natural gas, power, and other commodity-related investments.” What this means is that Appalachian State University and the University of North Carolina school system are actively promoting and profiting off of the struggle and oppression in Standing Rock. It means that our institutions are advancing the move to put communities in eastern North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia in danger from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In the face of a Trump presidency that threatens the stability of life on this planet, there is no room for neutrality in leadership at this university on the issue of climate change.

Divest Appalachian will continue building power on our campus this spring to show our school’s administration that it too can lead alongside universities, colleges and entire cities that have divested from fossil fuel industries and reinvested in solutions to the climate crisis. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be on our home soil, and we will not stand for an institution that touts an ideology of sustainability while profiting off industries driving climate change. We do this to protect our water, our air, our soil and our people right now. This pipeline is messy, it’s dangerous and it’s unnecessary. By laying these pipes, our state and our nation are telling us whose lives are more valuable, and who they can afford to lose. Watching extractive industries divide and conquer the communities we call home is not acceptable. From Standing Rock to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, people are standing up against injustice and destruction, but we need everyone to rise up from the trajectory we’re currently on.

There are many ways to get involved in blocking pipelines; call your elected officials, and learn more about pipelines and development projects in your state. It can even be as easy as finding local organizers to step into your community, such as Divest Appalachian, Boone Rising and Appalachian Voices.

Links to more resources:
Boone Rising on Facebook
Divest Appalachian
Divest Appalachian on Facebook
The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition on Facebook

Two North Carolina counties make energy efficiency history

Saturday, March 25th, 2017 - posted by Lauren

Burnsville_City_Hall,_Former_Yancey_County_Courthouse

Two counties in western North Carolina — Yancey and Mitchell — are the first in the United States to pass resolutions supporting development of “on-bill financing” by their electric utility for residential energy efficiency improvements.

The counties are served by French Broad Electric Membership Corporation, which serves 34,000 people. The co-op has a successful on-bill financing program for mini-split heat pumps, but has not implemented a more comprehensive and inclusive energy efficiency financing program, despite support from community stakeholders. The resolutions, proposed by Appalachian Voices, call on French Broad to develop a program that offers upfront financing for all residents, including low-income households and renters, to make home energy improvements. According to the Pay-As-You-Save program model, the member would repay the cost on their bill over time, but the energy savings would ensure a reduction in the average monthly bill, not an increase.

The Yancey County Commission was the first to pass the resolution, on February 13.. There is both a great opportunity and a great need for energy efficiency investments in Yancey County. According to the 2010-2014 U.S. Census, 77% of the county’s occupied housing stock is more than 25 years old, accounting for more than 5,700 housing units, of which 1,280 are rental properties.

Additionally, nearly one in every six households in Yancey County live in poverty, and the area median income is nearly 20% lower than the state median income. A study conducted by Accounting Insights found that county residents living below 50% of the poverty line spent an average of 44%of their household income on energy costs in 2015.

The Mitchell County Commission passed its resolution on March 6. The county faces similar housing conditions, poverty rates and energy cost burden as Yancey County.

Together, Yancey and Mitchell counties make up almost half of French Broad’s membership. Madison County, home to another 34% of French Broad’s members, is scheduled to consider the same resolution in April.

On-bill financing for home energy efficiency upgrades has been implemented successfully by other North Carolina electric co-ops. For instance, Roanoke Electric Cooperative in northeastern North Carolina launched its Upgrade to $ave program in 2015. Based on the Pay-As-You-Save model, Upgrade to $ave is accessible to renters and to members with less-than-ideal credit scores who might not qualify for conventional financing.

The on-bill financing program supported by Yancey and Mitchell counties would help relieve the burden of energy costs and improve the quality of living for thousands of French Broad members, while also stimulating local economies. The resolutions show that local leaders in the French Broad region believe that addressing energy costs is an important part of strengthening local economies and improving the lives of local residents, and that French Broad could play a central role in achieving those goals.

If you want to get involved, contact Lauren Essick at (828) 262-1500, or via email.

FERC’s pipeline review process is broken

Monday, February 20th, 2017 - posted by Peter Anderson

Former chairman adds his voice to public demands for greater scrutiny

As new research refutes industry's pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

As new research refutes industry’s pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

Sign the petition to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today!

It’s no secret: oil and gas pipelines have captured the nation’s attention, not to mention the new administration’s. Standing Rock’s resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline continues to put water protection, indigenous rights and environmental justice at the fore of any pipeline discussion. And not so long ago, the Keystone XL pipeline came to symbolize the United States’ willingness to lead (or not) on climate action. Now the Trump administration hopes to revive both.

The Trump administration also hopes to push through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas 600 miles from the Marcellus Shale in northern West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina. A list of the administration’s top 50 infrastructure priorities leaked in January includes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at number 20. The document reports the pipeline’s permitting process as “done,” despite the fact that comment periods for some federal and state permits are currently open and no permits have been issued. How’s that for alternative facts?

Pipelines not needed

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency with primary authority for permitting interstate gas pipelines, was generally viewed as pipeline-friendly even prior to the Trump era. The agency allows a 14 percent rate of return on investments in pipeline capital, and its environmental reviews typically fall short in analyzing both the need for additional pipelines and the projected climate impacts of new projects (in addition to many other deficiencies).

However, former FERC Chairman Norman Bay offered a surprising call for reform of the agency’s pipeline certificate process when he stepped away at the beginning of February (see the last six pages of this FERC order). Bay criticized the method FERC uses to determine whether or not there is a need for a pipeline. He pointed out that FERC usually looks to precedent agreements between pipeline owners and gas shippers as evidence of need. But this method is flawed.

According to Bay, “focusing on precedent agreements may not take into account a variety of other considerations, including … whether the precedent agreements are largely signed by affiliates.”

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In other words, a company applying to build a new pipeline says, “Look, we have subscribers lined up to buy gas from the pipeline, so there must be a need for it.” But a closer examination reveals that the buyer and the seller are both affiliates of the same parent corporation.

This echoes a concern highlighted in a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published in April 2016. That report found that “in situations in which a pipeline developer contracts with an affiliate company to ship gas through a new pipeline, this is strong evidence that it is doing so because of the financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is a need for the pipeline.”

This report studied the risks of building both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile gas pipeline that would also cut through the Appalachian regions of West Virginia and Virginia. It pointed out that for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, five of the six companies contracted to buy gas are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline. Energy behemoths Dominion Resources and Duke Energy have a combined 85 percent ownership stake in the pipeline, and their subsidiary companies have subscribed to 86 percent of the gas shipped. For the Mountain Valley Pipeline, all six of the buyers are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline.

Another report, published in September 2016 by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., studied conservative estimates of future gas demand in Virginia and the Carolinas. It concluded that, even under scenarios where gas use for electricity production is high, existing pipelines have more than enough capacity to provide energy to the region. That is, we can keep the lights on and businesses thriving without ever building the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

Climate impacts of gas pipelines

In addition to the needs analysis, Bay also called on FERC to reform its evaluation of climate impacts. In its draft environmental review of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, FERC refused to consider that the pipeline would spur more gas production, enabling more methane leakage along the entire supply chain. Without quantifying them, FERC compared downstream smokestack emissions to global greenhouse gas emissions and concluded that the pipeline’s emissions would merely be a drop in the bucket.

In its draft environmental review for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, FERC did attempt a rough calculation of downstream emissions but again refused to analyze upstream effects or methane leakage. FERC’s review stated that emissions from burning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s gas would be roughly 29 million metric tons (MMt) per year.

A new briefing published by Oil Change International puts a comparable number on emissions from gas combustion for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, estimating 31 MMt annually. But when you add increased gas production and methane leakage along the supply chain, total emissions more than double, reaching nearly 68 MMt per year. The organization also published a briefing for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimating total life-cycle emissions at nearly 90 MMt annually.

To put that in perspective, emissions from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be the rough equivalent of adding 20 coal-fired power plants to the grid or putting 14 million more cars on the road. Emissions from the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be like adding 26 coal-fired power plants or putting 19 million more cars on the road.

While Norman Bay defended FERC’s existing climate analysis methods from a legal perspective, he also argued for change. He stated that “in the interests of good government” the agency should analyze downstream impacts and perform lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions — not just from pipelines — but from the entire Marcellus and Utica gas production region.

Other environmental impacts

Besides bludgeoning our atmosphere with huge amounts of new greenhouse gas pollution, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines would, of course, threaten thousands of groundwater sources, surface streams and wetlands. Constructing the pipelines would force the permanent removal of trees along their routes, fragmenting habitats and spoiling views from the Appalachian Trail. The projects would threaten human health and safety, especially near powerful compressor stations used to pump gas along the line. They would disproportionately impact lower-income communities, communities of color and Native American communities, threatening important historic and cultural resources.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, Bay did not follow his own advice and revise the way FERC analyzes pipeline need or climate impacts while he led the agency. But here’s how you can do your part:

Mountain Valley Pipeline:

Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Serving residents by saving energy

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017 - posted by Katie Kienbaum

LightBulb

Instead of celebrating the first weekend of the spring semester by sleeping in, students at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. spent a recent Saturday volunteering with different community organizations as part of the school’s 18th annual Martin Luther King Challenge. Appalachian Voices was proud to be counted among those organizations and to once again participate in the service day. Thanks to the help of the student volunteers along with AmeriCorps Project Conserve members, myself included, our Energy Savings team was able to improve the energy efficiency of two local homes.

MLK Challenge 2017

Energy efficiency upgrades can help families lower their energy bills and make their homes more comfortable, while at the same time benefiting the environment. Unfortunately, these upgrades often have a high upfront cost that many families cannot afford. Even low-cost, do-it-yourself efficiency projects can be inaccessible for people who have limited mobility or lack experience with home repair. While there are programs that provide free and low-cost weatherization services, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program, the existing need greatly exceeds the available aid. In Western North Carolina for instance, there are tens of thousands of old homes that likely require efficiency improvements, but less than 500 receive weatherization assistance each year. Furthermore, high energy costs disproportionately burden low-income, African-American, and Latino households, making access to energy efficiency an issue of environmental justice.

For our two local home projects, John Kidda of ReNew Home Inc., generously provided energy assessments free of charge to identify needed efficiency upgrades. All houses are different, so getting a professional energy audit done ensures that time and resources are spent wisely, prioritizing the upgrades with the most impact. Installing insulation and sealing air leaks are often identified as prime targets of efficiency improvements.

One service day site was an old farmhouse in Todd, N.C. that had been pieced together over decades. When Brooke Walker, the resident, applied for Appalachian Voices’ Home Energy Makeover Contest in 2014, she was spending more than a quarter of her income on her electric bill. At the time, she described the difficulties in improving her home’s energy efficiency: “Our home was built in the 1950’s, so it has no insulation and the windows are single pane and drafty. Since our main income is from the farm, we find it very hard to have extra money for fixing those problems.”

Brooke’s home lacked any insulation in the walls, basement and crawlspace, and the existing insulation in the attic was inadequate. With the volunteers, we were able to air seal and insulate the basement, as well as weatherstrip two leaky exterior doors and install LED light bulbs throughout the house.

“We didn’t have enough resources to re-insulate her attic, but we did insulate the basement ceiling, which will greatly reduce cold air infiltration into the house from the basement. So Brooke will be able to live a lot more comfortably in the winter,” said Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Program Manager. John, the energy auditor, was also able to advise Brooke on other insulation projects she may perform in the future.

The second participant, Faith Wright of Vilas, N.C., had insulation in her basement, attic, and walls, but it was in various states of disrepair. So the volunteers, or “student worker-bees,” as Faith called them, realigned basement insulation that had shifted or fallen and filled gaps in the basement ceiling around pipes and other penetrations. These simple fixes will stop cold air from leaking into Faith’s home. We also weather-stripped the basement door and attic hatch to keep heated air from leaking into the unconditioned basement and attic.

“They caught energy leaks I knew nothing about,” Faith said after the work day. “There was a major gap in my flooring below the bathtub that was funneling cold air up from the basement, plus an un-insulated access door to the attic that was letting heat up out of my living space.”

The service day was a beneficial experience for everyone, not just the homeowners. “It was great to see the students so eager to learn and to help community members. We were able to teach them quite a bit about how to safely and effectively make energy efficiency improvements, and their enthusiasm for the work was inspiring,” said Lauren Essick, our N.C. Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator.

Materials for these projects were donated by Watauga Building Supply, which had also donated materials to an Appalachian Voices service project in 2015, and by Lowe’s Home Improvement of Lenoir.

To make energy efficiency more accessible to our neighbors like Brooke and Faith, Appalachian Voices is advocating for the establishment of on-bill financing programs by electric cooperatives in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. These programs would provide the co-ops’ member-owners with the upfront cost of energy upgrades, like insulation and air sealing as well as heating and cooling improvements, which they would pay back over time through a minimal charge on their electric bill. The best designed programs structure repayment as a tariff, tying repayment to the property’s electric meter, not the person, making the program accessible to renters and homeowners who plan on moving. Ideally, monthly repayment amounts are less than the average savings on electricity costs as a result of the improvements, meaning the member-owner will have lower energy bills even while paying the extra charge. And, importantly, they will enjoy more comfortable, health living conditions right away.

Brooke and Faith are both member-owners of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Cooperative, which offers the Energy SAVER Loan Program. Launched after community organizing and outreach efforts led by Appalachian Voices, the program offers loans to member-owners to finance home energy efficiency upgrades worth up to $7,500. Unfortunately, the current program is only available to homeowners — not renters — and is not as affordable as it could be.

We hope that Blue Ridge EMC converts soon to a tariffed on-bill financing program so more of its member-owners, like Faith and Brooke, can benefit from lower energy bills and more comfortable homes as a result of energy efficiency improvements.

Read more about the MLK Challenge and our work!

Gov. Cooper nominates new environmental secretary

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017 - posted by brian
Michael Regan, who was appointed this week as secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, pledged to increase transparency at the agency.

Michael Regan, who was appointed this week as secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, pledged to increase transparency at the agency.

After a month-long battle over his election and a last-minute special legislative session to curb his powers, North Carolina’s new governor is getting to work.

On Tuesday, Roy Cooper announced multiple senior staff hires and cabinet appointments, including his choice to lead the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. In a statement, Cooper said his pick for the agency, Michael Regan, understands that “protecting state resources is vital to our state’s health and economic climate.”

Regan, an air quality expert and North Carolina native, brings decades of experience to the position, serving at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clinton and Bush administrations. From 2008 to 2016, he was the senior southeastern director for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

During a press conference, Regan identified the need to develop greater transparency at DEQ and work with all stakeholders so they are “operating with pretty much similar information,” and said his first priority is meeting with veteran agency staff to gather feedback.

That alone could signal a shift from the prior DEQ leadership’s approach to public engagement on environmental issues, especially as it relates to coal ash management and drinking water quality. Environmental advocacy groups welcomed Regan’s appointment after years of calling for a return to science-based decision-making at the department.

Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams, a former DEQ regional supervisor, penned an op-ed for the News & Observer that was published a few days after the election’s outcome was finally clear.

“Under Gov. Pat McCrory, the agency scandalously cast doubt on science and made pariahs out of scientists and career public servants,” Adams wrote. “Leadership second-guessed its own professional staff’s reports, interfered with the recommendations of experts in other departments and knowingly spoke half-truths to the public about the safety of their well water results.

“We need men and women of science at the DEQ who are fact-minded, heart-guided and human-centered. We need people who are up to the task of rebuilding the department and regaining the public’s trust.”

A few days after her’s op-ed was published, Cooper spokesperson Ken Eudy said that restoring the credibility of DEQ was a top priority for the incoming administration. According to Brian Buzby, the executive director of the N.C. Conservation Network, Regan fits the bill.

“This choice is a clear signal from Gov. Cooper that his administration intends to restore a philosophy of transparency, integrity and sound science,” Buzby said in a statement.

Because of a new state law hastily passed by the legislature and signed by former Gov. Pat McCrory in the final days of his administration, Regan and other cabinet-level appointees are now subject to confirmation by the state Senate. A judge recently blocked a law passed during the special session that restructures county and state boards of elections, and Cooper has indicated more legal challenges to new laws could be coming.

The new governor brushed off questions about whether Regan’s background would be an obstacle to his confirmation by an oppositional and often anti-environmental legislature, saying it was important “to appoint the very best people to serve in each of these positions.”

Trouble is afoot in NC special session

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by brian

At the 11th hour, a vengeful display of power in Raleigh

North Carolina lawmakers have set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

North Carolina lawmakers have set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

You probably heard that last week North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, conceded to his Democratic challenger, Roy Cooper. It was a close race that dragged on for nearly a month after election day.

Upon conceding, Gov. McCrory told North Carolinians with a grin that “we now should do everything we can to support the 75th governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper.”

But it was widely rumored and is now abundantly clear that members of McCrory’s party in the state legislature had something else in mind. Last night, lawmakers set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

As has become traditional in North Carolina politics, lawmakers wove a deliberately tangled web. Over the weekend, Gov. McCrory called a special session ostensibly for the purpose of passing a recovery bill for communities impacted by Hurricane Matthew. But the agenda wasn’t restricted only to funding recovery efforts and it left room for “any other matters” legislators wanted to consider.

After days of deflecting questions and refusing to explain their priorities for the “emergency session,” Republicans introduced a slew of bills that would make sweeping changes and dramatically shift the balance of power away from the governor.

For instance, a House bill would alter Governor-elect Cooper’s ability to appoint the heads of departments such as the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality by requiring the state Senate to confirm cabinet members. A bill in the Senate would give more power to the Republican-majority state Court of Appeals and make it less likely for legal challenges on environmental and any number of other issues to reach the more Democratic-friendly state Supreme Court.

Other legislation relates more directly to environmental protections. A 43-page regulatory reform bill would change rules governing riparian buffers, vehicle emissions inspections and stormwater control measures.

Reminiscent of the legislature’s fast-tracked passage of House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom bill,” the power grab is receiving national attention (see here and here). It’s also causing backlash from North Carolinians and hundreds have crowded the state capitol in Raleigh to protest, among them residents that suffered the impacts of Hurricane Matthew.

“The politicians in Raleigh are treating flood victims like political pawns,” Michelle Herring of Kinston told Progress NC Action. “If this special session was supposed to be about disaster relief, and relief funding has already been agreed to, then why are we still here?”

In an editorial this morning, the Charlotte Observer editorial board described the state leaders’ actions as both “breathtaking and hardly surprising” and defined by an “all-too-familiar disrespect for democracy.”

Legislators plan to start voting on bills at 2:30 p.m. today. There’s still time to call your representatives. Let them know you’re watching and that North Carolinians are tired of their shady, undemocratic dealmaking.

Find the contact information for your House Representative and your state Senator.

Devastating Forest Fires Ignite Southeast

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Tristin Van Ord

The Party Rock Fire rages near Lake Lure, N.C., in November.  Photo by John Cayton

The Party Rock Fire rages near Lake Lure, N.C., in November. Photo by John Cayton

Numerous forest fires continue to burn across Southern and Central Appalachia due to dry weather conditions. According to USA Today, over 119,000 acres of forest have already burned throughout the region this fall.

Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia have all been affected.

At least 300 homes and business were damaged or destroyed after wildfires tore through the city of Gatlinburg and Sevier County, Tenn., on Nov. 28. Fourteen people lost their lives in the blaze and its aftermath.

The Southeast is currently experiencing a “once in a generation drought,” according to PBS News. While drought has increased the spread and intensity of the fires, arson is to blame for many of them. The Associated Press announced that multiple people were arrested for intentionally starting fires. A Kentucky resident was arrested after he started a wildfire to gain popularity on his Facebook page through a forest fire video.

Over 200 homes in the Nantahala National Forest in Western North Carolina were evacuated, and N.C. Governor Pat McCrory issued a state of emergency in 25 counties.

Smoke from the fires is also a public health hazard. According to the Weather Channel, at least two people in Kentucky died from respiratory complications due to the fires, while hundreds have been hospitalized.

Thousands of volunteers are working to stop the spread of the fires, including firefighters from across the country.

Citizens should check to see if their county is under an open burning ban. The North Carolina Forest Service advises keeping a shovel and water at hand if burning outside is necessary.

Editor’s note: The print version of this article stated that seven lives were lost in the Gatlinburg fire at press time. That figure has been updated in this version.

Coal Ash Cleanup News in North Carolina and Georgia

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Elizabeth E. Payne

A report issued by the federal Commission on Civil Rights in September examines whether the Environmental Protection Agency is complying with its environmental justice obligations. Environmental justice refers to the enforcement of environmental laws and policies fairly, regardless of an individual’s race, color or income.

The report focused largely on the agency’s regulation of coal ash disposal. The commission, members of which spoke with North Carolinians living near coal ash ponds in March 2016, found that “Racial minorities and low income communities are disproportionately affected by the siting of waste disposal facilities and often lack political and financial clout to properly bargain with polluters when fighting a decision or seeking redress.”

The commission made several recommendations, including listing coal ash as a “special hazard” and funding more research on the health impacts of exposure to coal ash.

In Georgia, the board members with the state’s Department of Natural Resources approved the Environmental Protection Division’s final coal ash disposal and storage rules on Oct. 26. “These rules are an important step forward, but they do not go far enough,” said a statement from the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization.

The new rules were adopted two days after heavy metals contamination was found in the groundwater near several Georgia Power plants, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In October 2016, Virginia Dominion Power withdrew an application to discharge wastewater from coal ash ponds at its Chesapeake power plant into surrounding waterways. Last year, the Sierra Club — represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center — sued Dominion for alleged groundwater contamination at the Chesapeake plant.

In North Carolina, conservation groups Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance reached a settlement with Duke Energy on Oct. 5 after two years of litigation. The settlement requires that that the coal ash from the impoundments at its Buck Steam Station in Salisbury, N.C., be excavated and removed. Much of the ash will be recycled into concrete.

Lawsuits are still underway concerning the cleanup of other Duke Energy plants in the state, including Belews Creek, whose coal ash ponds Duke intends to cap in place (see page 27)

In early October, heavy rains accompanying Hurricane Matthew led to severe flooding across the eastern part of the state. According to United Press International, the storm caused $1.5 billion in property damage in the state and killed at least 26 people.

Among the structures damaged in the flooding following the storm was an inactive coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee facility, a retired coal-fired power plant near Goldsboro, N.C. The inactive ponds at this facility contain more than one million tons of coal ash.

According to Waterkeeper Alliance, the impoundment ponds were submerged under flood water for seven days. As floodwater receded, an undetermined amount of the toxic waste product spilled into the Neuse River. A white material — comprised of fly ash particles known as cenospheres, one of many waste products from burning coal — coated the trees, banks and river surfaces.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is evaluating whether enforcement actions are needed.

Lighting up the night with the Daylight Savings Challenge

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by Katie Kienbaum
Watauga County resident Lydia Head with volunteers Sarah Merlotte and Hannah Emery (not pictured: Taylor Petty) Photo: Katie Kienbaum

Watauga County resident Lydia Head with volunteers Sarah Merlotte and Hannah Emery (not pictured: Taylor Petty)
Photo: Katie Kienbaum

To get through the dark evenings since Daylight Saving Time ended on November 6, people are turning on more lights for longer periods of time. Unfortunately, this means that their energy use and electricity bills go up.

Winter heating costs already place a great burden on many Appalachian families, with energy bills sometimes amounting to more than 20% of total family income. High bills are often the result of leaky, inefficient homes, but, making energy efficiency improvements are prohibitively expensive for those struggling the most with their electricity bills.

To make this winter a little easier for folks facing high energy bills, Appalachian Voices devised the Daylight Savings Challenge. We challenged students at Appalachian State University to help us replace as many lights as we could with energy-efficient LED light bulbs by the Daylight Saving time change on November 6.

Volunteer Kaytlin Hester-Newnam installs an energy efficient LED light bulb. Photo: Ridge Graham

Volunteer Kaytlin Hester-Newnam installs an energy efficient LED light bulb.
Photo: Ridge Graham

The new LED bulbs, donated to Appalachian Voices by Hospitality House, use 75% less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs. Replacing a single, frequently used incandescent bulb with an LED could save up to $15 a year. LEDs also last longer (sometimes up to 25,000 hours or 25 years) and do not contain potentially hazardous material, such as the mercury found in compact fluorescent light bulbs. With lower prices and more bulb and color options than ever before, now is the time to switch to LED lighting.

For the Daylight Savings Challenge, five student volunteers helped us distribute almost 100 energy efficient LED light bulbs to seniors across Watauga County, N.C. By the extended end date of November 15, we replaced nearly all of the light bulbs in six homes at no cost to the residents. To locate participants, we partnered with Watauga County Project on Aging, which provides services to senior citizens, many of whom live on fixed incomes which makes it hard to afford energy efficiency upgrades.

Some seniors also have limited mobility and face difficulties replacing burned out bulbs. Installing the longer-lasting LED light bulbs extends the amount of time before the bulb will have to be replaced again. “I couldn’t even go down [to the basement] to see how many were burned out,” said Lydia Head of Boone, N.C. “We are very thankful.”

All together, the replaced bulbs should save the participants at least $280 (about 3,390 kWh) a year. That translates to about 1.75 tons of coal that won’t get burned and more than four tons of carbon dioxide pollution that won’t contribute to climate change. And since these LED bulbs last approximately five years, the participants will save energy year after year.

It’s not too late to switch! Replace the light bulbs in your home with energy efficient LEDs to save your pocketbook and the planet.