In the war of words over drinking water health advisories between state employees and the McCrory administration, residents are clear on who they trust
North Carolina state epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from ncdhhs.gov
North Carolina’s state epidemiologist, Megan Davies, abruptly resigned from her position last night, writing in a letter that “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”
The department she is referring to is the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked for eight years. The administration is that of Gov. Pat McCrory, whose time in office has been tainted by his mishandling of the statewide problem of coal ash pollution.
Davies’ resignation is just the latest development in a public tussle between state employees and the McCrory administration that escalated last week when the transcript of sworn testimony by Dr. Ken Rudo, a toxicologist at DHHS, became public.
Rudo’s testimony raises troubling questions about the role leaders at DHHS and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had in downplaying the “Do Not Drink” warnings issued last year to hundreds of families on well water that live near Duke Energy coal ash sites. It also implicates McCrory’s office directly, with Rudo stating that he was called to the governor’s mansion to discuss the warnings and how to ease residents’ concerns about water contamination potentially caused by coal ash.
During his deposition, Rudo told lawyers that members of the McCrory administration wanted to tone down the warnings with language that “would not have been acceptable to me.”
News has happened fast since Rudo’s remarks became public and, when they probably should have played defense, high-ranking officials in the McCrory administration went on the attack.
On Tuesday, McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, repeatedly accused Rudo of lying. The next day, the administration released an editorial signed by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and Deputy Secretary for Health Services at DHHS, Dr. Randall Williams, that attacked Rudo for reaching “questionable and inconsistent” scientific conclusions and creating “unnecessary fear and confusion among North Carolinians who are concerned about the safety of their drinking water.”
Rudo stood by his deposition following the accusations by McCrory’s office. And, after the editorial, he released through his lawyers a point-by-point rebuttal of Reeder and Williams.
He’s not alone. Davies — who was Rudo’s superior at DHHS — also told lawyers under oath that she did not agree with the decision to lift the “Do Not Drink” warnings. She also stated that representatives of Duke Energy met with DHHS about the health screening levels set for well water and that she believes the department deliberately misled the public.
Based on Davies’ letter of resignation, it is that belief and the deliberately misleading editorial that led her to resign:
“Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public. I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”
So where does all this leave North Carolinians with contaminated drinking water? Exactly where they were before, as distrustful of DEQ and DHHS as they are of their water’s safety.
On Thursday morning, members of the Alliance for Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash held a press conference outside of the governor’s mansion where they defended Rudo and Davies for putting public health first and made it clear who they trust.
Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.
By Hannah Petersen
In May, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the final rankings for Duke’s coal ash impoundments in accordance with deadlines set by the Coal Ash Management Act.
Every impoundment in the state was classified as either “high” or “intermediate” risk, meaning the ash would have to be excavated and stored in a lined landfill. After years of attending public hearings and submitting comments to advocate for access to clean water for all North Carolinians, residents finally witnessed DEQ order Duke Energy to clean up all of the coal ash across the state.
For a moment, it appeared that the state had made progress with its coal ash policies. But in the same press release that announced the final rankings, DEQ asked to revisit them in 18 months. This would effectively give Duke time to remediate dam deficiencies and ultimately lead to a lower classification.
Six days after the department announced the rankings, the N.C. General Assembly announced the revision of Senate Bill 71, which would reinstate the Coal Ash Commission that Gov. Pat McCrory shut down in early March and extend deadlines for cleanup. McCrory vetoed the bill and, despite having enough votes to override, both the state House and Senate instead decided to drop the bill and create a new compromise bill at the end of the legislature’s 2016 short session.
A New Coal Ash Law
The rushed introduction, concurrence and signing of House Bill 630 puts at risk many aspects of the progress that residents and environmental groups have made since the introduction of the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014. The new law requires Duke to provide clean water to residents living within half a mile of coal ash impoundments, while leaving the door open for the company to cap coal ash ponds in place.
“If they go through with putting in water lines to our community, that’s a great step in the right direction, but it’s a half a step, it’s not getting all the way there by cleaning up the ash,” said Roger Hollis, a neighbor of Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant in Cleveland County, N.C., in an ACT Against Coal Ash press release.
In exchange for providing clean water, DEQ is required to classify impoundments as “low risk” so long as dam deficiencies are addressed. This classification largely ignores the environmental risks associated with the ash’s presence and simply buries the problem instead of remediating it. As a low-risk impoundment, the law permits capping in place as a closure option, despite the proximity of the impoundment to groundwater.
The new law also pushes back the deadline for when an alternative water source is to be provided to residents near coal ash sites and for when the rankings are considered final to October and November of 2018, respectively. Alongside the deadlines, HB 630 expands DEQ’s authority to grant extensions and variances for Duke Energy’s cleanup timeline.
“It satisfies everyone, because we weren’t a factor anyway,” said Amy Brown, who lives near Duke’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C. “The lawmakers didn’t include who is going to pay for the water bill, who is going to pay for plumbing, who is going to pay a regulator, and who is going to pay for new piping because we have old homes. No one included all that.”
“They presented it in a pretty package. And the outside is, ‘you’re going to get water,’” Brown said. “They didn’t show the inside, which is dirty toxic contaminants that are going to be left in place. They passed this problem onto my children now.”
“The legislature has done what Duke Energy’s lobbyists told it to do, threw thousands of public comments in the trash can, and protected Duke Energy while sacrificing the well-being of North Carolina’s clean water and communities,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a written statement.
Duke’s request to block release of deposition
The Southern Environmental Law Center is involved with a variety of lawsuits regarding coal ash across the state. Around the time that the risk rankings were finalized and new bills were being debated, SELC lawyers released transcripts of the depositions of state employees and scientists that they conducted.
In May, SELC released the deposition of Megan Davies, state epidemiologist for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which highlighted the lack of consensus surrounding the “Do Not Drink” letters that had been sent out across the state and later rescinded. In the deposition, Davies admits that she thought the letters should not have been rescinded and that no on-the-ground testing had been done to determine that residents’ well water was safe to drink.
State toxicologist Ken Rudo was deposed in July, but Duke has asked a federal judge to block the release of the deposition. Rudo had expressed skepticism about the rescinding of the “Do Not Drink” letters earlier in July, but Duke claims releasing the deposition publicly infringes upon its right to a free trial.
“How dare you try to stop the public from hearing from a state employee,” said Brown. “This is a man we trust. He gained our trust when he treated us like human beings and called every person to make sure we understood what the ‘Do Not Drink’ letters meant.”
“I want to be able to say that I trust my state,” Brown said. “I want to say that the system didn’t fail us, but at this point I can’t, because they haven’t proven it.”
Members of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash hold a press conference outside of a public hearing in March.
To the Members of the N.C. General Assembly:
Since the Dan River coal ash spill in February 2014, seldom has a day passed in North Carolina when coal ash is not in the news; the disposition of coal ash in North Carolina is of vital importance to public health and the environment. Our communities are being profoundly impacted: some of us already living day to day with contaminated water and air, and others are facing new impacts in areas which have been targeted for the disposal of coal ash.
During the summer of 2015, North Carolina communities previously impacted by coal ash, and those currently dealing with new coal ash landfills, joined together with a shared vision and common goal to form the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Believing that the coal ash emergency in North Carolina deserves a real, comprehensive solution that will protect all communities, we crafted the ACT Against Coal Ash unifying principles. A few of the key principles are below, and the full document can be found here.
Please don’t let this short session close without taking action to assure that communities near coal ash sites have safe replacement water supplies as soon as possible, that communities facing new coal ash landfills are protected and that cleanups move forward quickly, with no “capping in place.”
We believe that all people, regardless of race and socio-economic class, have a right to healthy communities, clean water, clean air, and safe food and soil.
We believe that living in close proximity to coal ash infringes on these basic rights.
We demand a transparent process to coal ash cleanup in which Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers are open and honest about the health effects of chemicals found in coal ash, and any plans for disposal or recycling coal ash.
We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to urgently respond to the need to test any water supply well that may have been contaminated by coal ash, not just those within 1,000 feet. The tests must be paid for by Duke and performed by an independent lab using the most sensitive and comprehensive testing methods.
We call on N.C. decision makers to require Duke Energy to pay for independent oversight of the coal ash cleanup process, independent analysis of current coal ash contamination, research by public and private entities to find the best solutions to this problem, and random and unannounced inspections of the coal ash sites by state regulators.
We demand that N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy prioritize worker safety during all phases of coal ash cleanup and site remediation.
We call on N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy to strive for a permanent solution to coal ash that prioritizes community safety. We demand that any coal ash that cannot be safely recycled or processed be stored on Duke Energy property with the company maintaining liability. We will not accept dumping of the ash in other communities or capping-in-place as solutions. We demand that the ash be urgently isolated from ground and surface water at all locations.
We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to invest in a sustainable, healthy, affordable, and responsible energy future for N.C. that supports the growth of solar, wind energy, and energy efficiency programs, and moves away from coal, natural gas, and other harmful and expensive methods of generating power that poison communities and affect North Carolinians’ quality of life.
As our elected representatives, you have the opportunity — and responsibility — to do what is right for the residents of North Carolina. We call on the General Assembly to make sure no community is left to suffer from coal ash now, or in the future.
Bobby Jones, representing Down East Coal Ash Coalition, Goldsboro
Caroline Armijo, representing Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup, Belews Creek
Roger Hollis, representing residents near Cliffside / Rogers Energy Complex
Debbie Baker and Amy Brown, representing neighbors of Allen Steam Station
Jeri Cruz-Segarra, representing resident near Asheville Steam Station
John Wagner and Judy Hogan, representing Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dumps
Deborah B. Graham, representing neighbors of Buck Steam Station
A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state. Click to enlarge.
UPDATE: As of June 22, North Carolina lawmakers had taken no further action on legislation related to coal ash cleanup in the state.
On May 18, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the rankings for Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments across the state following 15 public hearings throughout March.
Eight sites are classified “high priority,” meaning the impoundments must be closed and the toxic ash excavated and moved to a lined landfill by 2019. Duke has already agreed to fully excavate these sites. The remaining 25 were ranked intermediate and must be closed and excavated by 2024. It will be Duke’s decision as to whether the intermediate sites’ ash remains on Duke property or is moved to sites such as those in Chatham or Lee counties.
But those rankings could still change. DEQ requested a change to the state law governing coal ash disposal and asked the General Assembly for an 18-month extension during which Duke Energy can take action to remediate issues such as dam deficiencies, one of the key factors leading to the intermediate classifications.
DEQ officials also say that providing water to communities around the impoundments will alleviate drinking water quality concerns, another key factor. Giving Duke 18 months to make these changes would likely cause DEQ to reclassify the sites, opening the door for Duke to cap ponds in place. Citizens living near coal ash sites disagree with DEQ’s suggestion.
“Residents are angered that DEQ is already asking the legislature to consider changing the coal ash law in 18 months, likely creating further delays and loopholes,” according to The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash — a coalition of community members directly impacted by the state’s coal ash.
Under the Coal Ash Management Act, an independent commission is required to approve DEQ’s rankings within 60 days. But that commission no longer exists. In March, Gov. McCrory disbanded the state Coal Ash Management Commission after the state Supreme Court found that the commission appointment process encroached on the executive branch’s power.
Citizens waitiing for clean water
On May 24, however, the legislature announced that it was currently revising Senate Bill 71 to reestablish the commission and provide future regulation for coal ash cleanup. Under the current writing of the bill the commission would have seven members, five of whom would be appointed by McCrory. Duke would have to provide water to residents within half a mile of coal ash impoundments. And if the appointed commission does not approve of the rankings within 120 days after recommendations, the rankings would be rejected.
The bill could relieve Duke from the responsibility of excavating coal ash threatening the water quality and harming nearby residents by causing air quality concerns and reducing property values.
Both the state House and Senate have approved the bill, but Gov. McCrory has vetoed it saying that it “weakens environmental protections, delays water connections for well owners, ignores dam safety, hinders efforts to reuse coal ash and violate the state constitution.”
Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override the veto, but it now appears unlikely that lawmakers will take action.
“This bill is the latest attempt by Raleigh politicians to bail out Duke Energy,” said Frank Holleman in a statement for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Now, after heavy lobbying by Duke Energy, the Raleigh politicians want to reopen the process to try to find a way to let Duke Energy off the hook.”
While the law has been the center of attention for policymakers, it also concerns North Carolinians.
“This is a way for Duke to wiggle out of fixing the problem,” says Doris Smith, a Walnut Cove resident who lives roughly two miles from Duke’s Belews Creek Power Station, which was ranked intermediate. “And providing water does nothing for the pollution. The only solution is to get the ash out of here.”
Last year, more than 300 residents living near Duke Energy coal ash ponds were sent “Do Not Drink” letters from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services informing them of unsafe levels of heavy metals in their well water including hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen. This March, the state agencies rescinded the majority of these letters claiming that further studies revealed the recommendations were overly cautious.
But no well testing or on the ground studies had occurred. DHHS State Epidemiologist Megan Davies revealed during a deposition that the “extensive study” that the letters referenced were actually literature reviews of other state and federal policies for regulating contaminants.
“I know the language of the letter says, ‘after extensive study,’ said Davies. “To me, that doesn’t mean — it just means after reviewing the literature.”
When asked if she thought the letters should have been rescinded, the deposition transcript shows Davies’ response was, “No.”
“They treat us like we are dirt,” said Doris Smith of Walnut Cove. “I know why they don’t want to move the ash, it’s because there is so much of it. But it’s done enough damage.”
Editor’s note: The following op-ed about how far the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has strayed from its mission appeared in The News & Observer on Monday, May 16. On Wednesday, the department announced tentative closure deadlines for coal ash ponds at Duke Energy facilities across the state, but told lawmakers it wants to revisit those rankings in late 2017. Read our statement on the tentative rankings here.
Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.
Sworn testimony of a state epidemiologist that became public over the weekend confirms what many North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds already assumed. Health experts who developed the drinking water standard that led officials to tell hundreds of residents last year that their water is not safe did not support the McCrory administration’s decision in March to rescind the warnings.
The disclosure comes as state lawmakers consider a bill that would prohibit local health departments from issuing health advisories to private well or public water users unless contaminants exceed levels set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But that law is intended as a backstop to be built upon, not as a floor for states like North Carolina that are content with the bare minimum.
From the state’s perspective, the bill is a quick fix to make certain that officials with the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services never again suffer the backlash they have seen since lifting the warnings about high levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium – potentially due to proximity to coal ash ponds. Residents were told their water was unsafe to drink or use for cooking. There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium or hexavalent chromium.
These are just the latest examples in a long pattern of attempts by the McCrory administration to insulate itself from outside criticism and, more importantly, from citizens’ legitimate concerns. These tactics have been central to the dismantling of DEQ, where I worked for nearly nine years. I resigned in 2013, around the time former Secretary John Skvarla pledged to transform the agency into a “customer-friendly juggernaut” with the primary role of serving industry.
After Skvarla’s departure, the promotion of Donald van der Vaart to the position showed McCrory’s skill at hand-picking leaders guided by an ideological compass that points away from environmental protection. Enabled by anti-regulatory powers in the legislature, DEQ’s leadership has abandoned the principles necessary to serve the public. North Carolinians across the political spectrum should be alarmed at the state of the agency today.
As we await the announcement this month of DEQ’s final plans for closing coal ash ponds across the state, we recognize that there has been progress toward addressing this significant problem. But the pledges to safely close ponds and protect communities after the Dan River disaster are distant memories now. Instead, DEQ’s top-down decision-making has dominated the process.
The final months of the coal ash pond ranking process have been particularly frustrating for citizens, advocates and, presumably, many of the rank-and-file at DEQ. After a draft report leaked last December revealed that DEQ’s own experts recommended full closure of most coal ash ponds, van der Vaart stepped in, assuring the public that the draft was based on “incomplete data.” Two weeks later, the agency’s final report listed only eight of the state’s 32 ponds as being “high” risk and deserving full closure. Most are now proposed as “low” or “low-intermediate” risk, meaning the coal ash could be capped in place and continue to threaten to water quality.
What would have been the only remaining line of defense, the Coal Ash Management Commission, was created in part to review DEQ’s recommendations before they become final. But McCrory disbanded the commission in March as a series of hearings to gather public input on the state’s coal ash sites was underway. Rather than acknowledging the independent role the commission was created to play, van der Vaart has asserted that his department has everything under control.
DEQ leaders know citizens are concerned about their water and health. The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, a statewide coalition of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash sites, has made that evident. They’re concerned with good reason. When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights arranged a town hall meeting in Walnut Cove near Duke’s Belews Creek power plant, it wasn’t to spotlight DEQ’s success mitigating an environmental injustice.
Some state lawmakers are taking urgent action to re-establish the Coal Ash Management Commission. I’m glad; a strong independent commission is critical to earning the public’s trust and properly closing coal ash ponds. But dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become.
Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on coal ash cleanup, not continuing to enable an agency that has lost its way.
Patrick lives on Rockhouse Creek. She said that as she watched the bright yellow plume move down the creek, she took a sample of the water and put it in a paint bucket under her porch. Two curious newborn puppies on her property found the paint bucket and drank its contents. They became violently ill and died later that day.
At the end of April, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet released a report detailing the state’s investigation into the spill, but there was no mention of Patrick’s dead dogs. Although many local residents thought the pollution might have been related to fracking — an oily sheen was noticed on the surface of the water — the state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. According to Lanny Brannock, a spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, regulators do not know if someone intentionally put paint in the creek or if it was an accident.
But many Martin County residents still have questions, and that’s not uncommon in a county that has seen its fair share of coal slurry spills and municipal water problems. The Mountain Citizen, located in the county seat of Inez, has doggedly reported water quality and environmental issues for decades. In fact, the newspaper’s diligence, combined with the hard work of local organizers, prompted the Kentucky Public Service Commission to investigate the county’s water system, which has a water loss rate of more than 60 percent and often delivers smelly, foul water.
In the aftermath of Flint, Mich., this video from Martin County caught the attention of consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted it to her Facebook page.
When I spoke with Inez resident Josie Delong back in February, she was very clear about the long-term burdens that come with having bad water:
The biggest [burden] is definitely health issues. But also the fact that most of us are on a fixed income here. Everybody’s losing their jobs in the mines, losing their jobs here or there, and can’t afford these high water bills, and we can’t even use the water. We’re paying these bills and yet still having to go to the store and get water, and we don’t know what it’s doing to us. And that’s the big fear. We have no idea.
In 2015, the Martin County Water District accrued multiple non-compliance violations for known carcinogens such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. In the offices of the Mountain Citizen, editor Gary Ball points to the back of his latest water bill, which includes a notice for anyone with an immunodeficiency disorder: do not drink the water. “In other words, if you’re as healthy as a horse, drink away,” Ball says. “But sooner or later it’s going to get to you.”
Ball and the Mountain Citizen have also extensively documented the unequal way in which water is distributed in the county, and how many customers are often not informed of boil water advisories or shut-offs in the system. According to Gary and Lisa Smith Stayton, owner and publisher of the Mountain Citizen, the excessive water loss rate often impacts the poorer or more remote areas of the county first. As water is diverted to more populated and wealthy areas in the county, some customers are forced to go without.
Sometimes there’s no water at all. As Ms. McCoy explains in this Facebook post, not having water creates all kinds of social and financial hardships on her day-to-day schedule.
Officials in the county have adamantly denied the extent of the problems, and often portray concerned citizens as alarmists and idealists. The Martin County Judge Executive, Kelly Callaham, has publicly stated that the 60 percent water loss rate in the system is due to people stealing water from fire hydrants and industrial coal mine sites. (I reached out to Mr. Callaham and the Martin County Water District; neither returned my requests for a comment).
“Our officials downplay every single issue, and go to great extents to discredit those who speak up,” says Lisa Smith Stayton. She described a recent fiscal court hearing that turned into an attempt to publicly discredit a Mountain Citizen report about disinfection byproducts in the water. Lisa was incredulous. “One magistrate even said ‘you’re more likely to get cancer from eating a hot dog.’”
In late March, due to pressure from citizens like Delong, Ball and Stayton, state Senator Ray Jones convened a meeting at his office in Frankfort to discuss issues with the water system. Watching footage of the meeting is frustrating; a great deal of time is wasted on discussing surreal and overstated accusations of “water theft.” At several points in the conversation, some variation of this statement is heard: “Martin County is not the only county where these problems occur.”
This is a familiar tactic deployed by the powerful: make the victims appear as if their demands are inherently selfish because, after all, it’s happening to everyone. If you can portray the powerless as hyperbolic and alarmist, you eventually start to convince them that their demands are crazy. This is known as “gaslighting,” and it’s a depressingly effective way to evade accountability.
But residents like Delong aren’t deterred. As she told me:
The more people who talk about it and share their concerns, the better. Because, I’ll be honest, I sat back for a long time and said, “Well why should I say anything about it? I’m just one person. That’s not gonna change anything.” And then the very second I did mention it on social media, and posted a picture, I saw a huge response. And that gave me confidence. Maybe we can change this.
Motivated by health problems that she believes to be caused by the water, as well as mounting medical bills, Delong started a public Facebook forum. She began polling her friends to see if they suffered from similar afflictions and medical costs. The results are astounding in their detail and specificity; many respondents reported skin irritations, stomach issues and autoimmune disorders.
It’s obvious from reading the comments on Delong’s poll, as well as the many comments on the Martin County Water Warriors’ Facebook page, that the public health costs of living in coalfield counties are increasingly burdensome. My own experience bears that out; I live in Letcher County, Ky., about an hour and a half south of Martin County. I spend upwards of $50 each month on bottled water, and most of my friends and neighbors do the same. With coal severance funds declining, we’re also forced to pay more for basic services like trash and recycle collections. The Letcher County Recreation Center, built with coal severance funds, is constantly at risk of closing.
In fact, Gina Patrick’s anxiety about having to switch from well water to potentially-dangerous municipal water is not uncommon. Whether it comes from a well or a municipal system, the drinking water of many eastern Kentuckians is at risk of being polluted. When a dangerous acid mine drainage spill occurred five miles upstream of the Letcher County water intake in March, we were reminded of the many times our water system was poisoned by diesel fuel from local oil magnate Don Childers. It doesn’t help knowing that the state actively works to sweep those violations under the rug, or that it neglects to include important factors like dead dogs in its investigation of a bright yellow creeks.
Delong articulates the full scope of this problem and the struggle to stay:
It just feels like we’re going downhill so fast. I’ve had a lot of friends move out of the county. And it’s sad. I grew up here. And everyone’s just leaving. And it’s becoming a ghost town. And I don’t want to leave. I mean, I could, I’m sure. But who’s going to want to buy a home in this county? How could you sell your home? When someone away from here looks up Martin County, they automatically see repeats of all these troubles and problems and people moving away and no jobs and no opportunities. It’s gonna be impossible to sell your home right now. And I don’t want to leave. I want to do what I can — I’m just one person but I want to do what I can to try and make things better for us, instead of just watching it go downhill.
Officials say that they want people to stay. Some even say that they want economic transition. But what are they doing to help us save money where it matters — on very basic needs like food, water and healthcare? The solutions to these needs amount to the most basic and essential forms of economic development: safe drinking water, functioning local services, affordable healthcare and access to adequately funded social programs. They are simple solutions to very real problems that would save people money and help them stay in the region that they love.
We have to address the economic and environmental burdens created by a dependence on coal
The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson
Earlier this month, a letter to the editors of The New York Times by Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons appeared on the newspaper’s website.
Tom penned the letter following a piece by the Times editorial board that described a “grossly disfigured landscape” where steep mountain ridgelines that formed over millions of years old stand “flat as mesas … inhospitable to forest restoration.”
After decades of mountaintop removal and large-scale surface mining, these grim descriptions of Central Appalachia are familiar in the media, literature and the daily experience of those that live near mines.
Not only does this devastating practice continue to reduce mountains to rubble, poisoning the air and water, Tom points out:
… mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities as the industry searches out ever-dwindling coal seams, and residents continue to suffer from a multitude of health effects related to mining pollution, not to mention dire economic conditions.
The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant. Backers of mountaintop removal believe the debate ends with the reclamation of mines — a superficial “fix” that Ken Hechler, a former congressman and long-time opponent of mountaintop removal, has unsettlingly compared to putting “lipstick on a corpse.” But new research challenges the myth that reclamation can restore mountains, much less ecological health.
The Times’ welcome editorial drew attention to this study, by researchers at Duke University, that found mountaintop removal has left large swaths of Central Appalachia 40 percent flatter than they were before mining, leading to staggering changes in erosion patterns and water quality that are, essentially, permanent.
“We have data that the water quality impacts can last at least 30 years, but the geomorphology impacts might last thousands of years,” according to the study’s lead author, Matthew Ross.
The editorial also makes a brief mention of the Stream Protection Rule, which would go far to reducing the worst impacts of mountaintop removal. Tom wrote his letter in part to stress the importance of this science-based rule and to urge federal regulators to stand firm in the face of industry opposition, and finalize it before President Obama leaves office.
Not doing so could come at a high cost to Appalachia’s environmental and economic future. As Tom’s letter concludes:
… unless the [U.S. Department of the Interior] has the courage to issue a strong rule later this year that reflects the most current science, achieving a prosperous future here will be all but impossible.
Read the Times’ editorial here. Click here for Tom’s letter.
Virginians expressed their opposition to proposed natural gas pipelines in front of the Capitol Building in January.
Late last month, we learned that the U.S. Forest Service rejected the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route. This development significantly checks the lickety-split pace of the project.
If that renews your desire to take action, there are opportunities channel that feeling into these important legislative fights in the General Assembly.
Lobby days in Richmond displayed pipeline opposition — now, committees coming up
As the chorus of Virginians voicing opposition to fracked gas pipelines in our region grows and becomes more diverse, we took our movement to the General Assembly for a major day of action to educate legislators about our agenda to safeguard land and water. On Tuesday, Jan. 19, participants from across Virginia came to Richmond and held dozens of meetings with state delegates and senators. Addressing attendees the morning of the event, State Senator John Edwards made it clear that he stands with Virginians who are concerned about the risks of the dirty pipeline proposals.
SB 726 in Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 4
SB 726 would fix a serious problem with how Virginia limits erosion and sediment pollution from utility company construction projects, including pipelines. The status quo system would allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline to avoid proper regulation through a loophole. Area legislators in the relevant committee include senators Emmett Hanger and Mark Obenshain.
Tell your senator the current system is wrong — and here are some reasons why: it allows utility companies to avoid proper government agency oversight; it exempts utility companies from requirements that apply to all other construction projects; it excludes the public and local governments from involvement; and it greatly increases the threat of damage to the environment and property due to the extensive and complicated nature of these projects.
Virginia State Senator John Edwards speaks with citizens about pipeline legislation.
Urge your legislator to restore proper government oversight of these developments and revoke the free pass that companies now have to pollute Virginia waterways. Use the blue tab at the top of the General Assembly’s website to look up who represents you and find contact information for his or her office.
If you can make it, we encourage you to attend the committee at the General Assembly in Senate Room B on Thursday afternoon starting at or around 2 p.m. to impress the importance of these decisions upon our legislators in person.
Help Win Repeal of the “Survey Without Permission” Statute — Bills Up Soon in Commerce Committee
On Feb. 8 and 9, respectively, committees will take up SB 614 and HB 1118 related to companies’ ability to survey without landowner permission. You can contact your legislation in support of these measures by going to the General Assembly’s website and clicking the blue bar up top to find out who represents you and how to email or call their offices.
As background, HB 1118 and SB 614 are House and Senate versions of a bill to repeal VA 56-49.01, which allows Dominion to force surveys on unwilling property owners. That means that under Virginia law there is really no legal way for property owners to unequivocally demonstrate opposition to a gas pipelines, no matter the size, going through their property.
Be sure to contact your legislators before committees deal with these bills so that your comments will be most effective: the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee will discuss SB 614 Monday, Feb. 8, starting at approximately 2 p.m. The House Subcommittee on Energy will discuss HB 1118 on Tuesday, Feb. 9, starting at approximately 4 p.m. Again, feel free to attend, and contact hannah [at] appvoices [dot] org if you have questions about how to participate in these committees’ decisions.
What else does recent news tell us about these risky pipelines?
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) letter to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (that is, Dominion Resources) states that alternative routes cannot cut through “highly sensitive resources … of such irreplaceable character that minimization and compensation measures may not be adequate or appropriate and should be avoided.” The pipeline company has not, in the USFS’s view, demonstrated “why the project cannot reasonably be accommodated off National Forest Service (NFS) lands.”
If Dominion tries to stick with the original route, it will have to say why it thinks the pipeline has to be built on USFS lands. The company could propose a new route, impacting a different set of landowners and their properties, or it may have to go back to the drawing board with a new application. -We hope Dominion will turn in an entirely different direction, as this project, like the other pipelines proposed in Virginia, is unneeded, hazardous and misguided.
Communities in our region have been on the receiving end of the fracking boom. A major build-out of this kind of infrastructure will only worsen the impacts of fracking in those communities while locking us into decades of dependence on dirty energy. At the same time it defers our collective chance to harness the cleanest, most-sustainable energy sources — which happen to be a great deal for customers too.
Our work seems to be provoking a reaction. Dominion recently went into high-gear in its public relations. Spokesman Jim Norvelle said last week that gas-fired power plants are widely viewed as essential to meeting the goals of the Clean Power plan. To anyone who understands the economic opportunity presented by the EPA’s carbon pollution standards, or for those who have been reading recent reports describing the benefits of prioritizing renewable solar power, wind power and energy efficiency in Virginia, that probably sounds ludicrous. Whatever the polluters say or do next, and whenever there’s a chance to take action, we’ll be keeping you in the loop.
Clean energy is a major area for potential policy changes during this year’s General Assembly session. Here is a roundup of energy bills to watch.
Clean energy is a major area for potential policy changes during this year’s General Assembly session.
Governor Terry McAuliffe touched on the subject in his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, pledging to “stimulate economic growth by expanding our use of renewable energy” and touting recent commitments that amount to a 100-fold increase in solar generated in the state.
Still, some of the most exciting measures that legislators are considering face significant challenges. Here is a roundup of energy bills to watch.
Solar Power Solutions
Legislators who are allied with our clean energy agenda admit there are barriers to making meaningful change during this session. In a radio interview last week, Senator Creigh Deeds invoked lyrics from a familiar Talking Heads song to describe the partisan divide: “Same as it ever was.” This sentiment pointedly captures utility companies’ opposition to basic provisions governing customer freedom to select clean energy options and others aimed at reducing wasted energy in Virginia.
Last month, we discussed the vital need to legally clarify that it is legal in Virginia for an electricity customer to enter into an agreement to purchase power from a company than can install a renewable energy generating system on their property. Power Purchase Agreements can encourage arrangements that involve no upfront cost for the customer, present attractive cost-saving opportunities for schools and churches, and avoid more costly forms of generation while relieving grid congestion, among other benefits to the whole customer base. SB 139, SB 140, SB 148, HB 618 and a bill currently being finalized by Delegate Randy Minchew entitled the Renewable Energy Provisions Bill will all be considered as ways to promote solar affordably in Virginia.
Energy Efficiency Policy Reform
Year after year, one roadblock that has kept Virginia from improving energy efficiency is the fact that state regulators evaluate proposed energy efficiency programs using a flawed process. This method practically guarantees that the most thorough demand management measures, such as home and business assessments, will be denied. This results in fewer cost-saving options for customers and perpetuates a system that makes rewards utilities for pursuing more expensive ways to meet demand.
A bill sponsored by Delegate Lee Ware, HB 352, could reform these tests to give robust energy efficiency programs a better chance of being approved by the State Corporation Commission. HB 1053 and SB 395 are companion bills that are intended to address another dimension of this problem: in theory, electric utilities that operate energy efficiency programs are allowed to request recovery of the revenue that they have lost from the energy saved, that is, the energy the utility would have sold to customers. But regulators tend to be apprehensive about approving programs that could result in such future costs to ratepayers, and they can turn down programs based on that consideration. Other states have dealt with this by rewarding utilities a lesser dollar figure for the energy they save by running such programs — this a reform that the McAuliffe administration supports and one that should get traction this year.
Who’s Grandstanding Against the Clean Power Plan this Year?
Three bills introduced this year would impede Virginia’s compliance with federal carbon pollution standards and interfere with our path toward a clean energy future. HB 2, SB 21 and SB 482 all would require the General Assembly’s approval of the compliance plan prepared by the state Department of Environmental Quality. This approach is being advocated by the likes of the industry-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which recently lost American Electric Power as a member, apparently because of this very issue.
Governor McAuliffe expressed his intention to veto such legislation should both houses approve it, which is good news for the state’s economic and clean energy outlook. Even a consulting firm that Virginia’s utilities often look to has shown that the Clean Power Plan will reduce customer bills and grow clean energy, a sector that created $3.9 billion in revenue in Virginia in 2014.
Ensuring a Strong, Beneficial Clean Power Plan with the Virginia Coastal Protection Act
HB 351–SB 571 is the bipartisan Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act, which would authorize our state to join a carbon trading program with other states, providing more than $250 million in the first year through the auction of emission allowances. These funds would be divided to combat the effects of worsening sea-level rise, support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and assist with economic development in Southwest Virginia.
Take a moment to fill your legislators in on the energy issues that matter to you most. Visit the General Assembly’s website and pull down the blue tab from the top of the page to look up who represents you, find email addresses for your state delegate and senator, search bills introduced this session and familiarize yourself with the civic process that determines Virginia’s energy policy. Then buckle up for a fast two-month-long General Assembly session!
Editors’ Note: This is the first of three posts in a series that we’ll share this week about North Carolina and the Clean Power Plan. Friday is the final day for North Carolinians to demand the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality abandon its efforts to block the Clean Power Plan. Add your voice here | Read part 2.
Concept graphic from iStock images by Appalachian Voices staff.
North Carolina’s elected leaders and agency officials, with little say from the citizens they represent, have placed us on a reckless course in regard to our future energy mix and our ability as a state to determine that future.
Appalachian Voices, as part of a wide network of organizations and citizens from across the state, is working hard to convince North Carolina’s decision makers to change course and chart a path that meets or exceeds the federal government’s requirements for our state under the Clean Power Plan.
Back in October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published the final rule for the Clean Power Plan — a new regulation that requires states to achieve specific targets for reducing carbon emissions from electric generating power plants by 2030. States may choose either to improve the average emissions per-unit of electricity generated, a “rate-based” approach, or to develop a plan for reducing overall emissions, a “mass-based” approach.
The Clean Power Plan provides states with flexibility in determining how they will achieve their specific targets, and even incentivizes the early development of programs that will result in renewable energy generation or energy efficiency gains for low-income communities. For North Carolina, the rate-based approach would require a 32 percent improvement in emissions rate by 2030 for an overall 12.5 percent reduction in annual carbon emissions.
While many states are legally challenging the EPA’s authority to enact the Clean Power Plan, most of those states are still moving ahead and developing plans that meet EPA’s requirements. North Carolina, on the other hand, has wasted taxpayer dollars by developing a plan that the government admits is designed to fail.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s “plan to fail” focuses only on four coal-fired power plants while requiring nothing of the state’s natural gas plants. The “plan to fail” also fails to even mention renewable energy or energy efficiency. Despite the EPA’s requirements, the “plan” was developed without any stakeholder input; the state only involved stakeholders during a series of three public hearings that came after the plan had already been developed.
DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart falsely justifies the agency’s plan by stating that the EPA does not have the legal authority to require anything other than what the state plan addresses, which is emissions reductions for coal-fired power plants. This is problematic because if the state ends up being wrong, as numerous legal analyses show it is, then the EPA will impose its federal plan on North Carolina.
Given the current attitude of our state’s leaders toward clean energy and environmental protection, this may prove to be a blessing. It would be a far more preferable approach, however, if state officials were to develop a plan that reflects the desires of North Carolinians, and that builds upon the substantial growth in the clean energy economy that the state has experienced over the past seven years.
For now, the state’s “plan” achieves less than 3 percent of the total reduction in annual carbon emissions required by EPA and does nothing to advance the state’s clean energy economy. It also leaves the citizens and businesses of our great state vulnerable to the inevitable increase in energy costs resulting from a continued reliance on fossil fuels and a federally imposed compliance plan.
North Carolina can do better. It should do better. And millions of North Carolina residents need their leaders to lead and chart a path toward a clean energy future, instead of setting us on a crash course that will have severe economic and environmental consequences.
A state compliance plan that focuses more on renewable energy and energy efficiency can create tens of thousands of jobs and help alleviate poverty while improving air and water quality for us all. Failing short of that will halt seven years of progress in clean energy development, leave us vulnerable to future contamination of our air and waterways from fossil fuel generation and coal ash disposal, and likely result in higher energy bills that negatively affect everyone — especially those already struggling to afford their energy bills.
Appalachian Voices is calling on North Carolinians to let the DEQ know that we won’t stand for its recklessness.Take a moment to comment on the state’s “plan to fail” and let the administration know that we need a clean energy future. The deadline to comment is this Friday, Jan. 15.