Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

North Carolina lawmakers put fracking first

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 - posted by amy
Stokes County, N.C., resident Tracey Edwards speaks in favor of a moratorium on fracking during a meeting of the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

Stokes County, N.C., resident Tracey Edwards speaks in favor of a moratorium on fracking during a meeting of the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

The town of Walnut Cove, N.C., and Rockingham County recently joined the small but growing list of localities where commissions of elected officials have passed anti-fracking moratoriums.

On Nov. 10, a little more than a month after the passage of a county-wide moratorium, residents of Stokes County once again raised their concerns with fracking, this time seeking a moratorium from the board of commissioners of Walnut Cove — the first municipality to take up the issue.

Tracey Edwards, a lifelong resident of Stokes County, spoke to the commissioners and other community members when she said, “We have people here out of a four-letter word: love. It’s love of where they live, They love their county, they love their neighbors and they want to live in peace and have a clean environment. That is all anybody really wants.”

Residents across the state are looking to their local government officials to oppose fracking since pleas to decision makers in Raleigh have largely fallen on deaf ears. Thousands of citizens have called or emailed their representatives during the past two years asking to ban fracking in the state. During the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission’s comment period on rules proposed to regulate fracking in North Carolina, a record 200,000 comments were submitted, in vast majority against the rules and against the practice of fracking itself.

“The people at the local level want a voice in what affects our way of life,” Linda Hicks of the group No Fracking Stokes County said “The Mining and Energy Committee has formulated regulations that protects the oil and gas industry and not us”

Last year, the state legislature prohibited local bans on fracking. And in the final hours of this year’s session, in an attempt to usurp all power over oil and gas decisions in the state, lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting any local control and regulation of the fracking industry.

More than 70 mayors, commissioners, and other local elected officials across the state sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory on Nov. 5 describing why oversight of such a potentially harmful industry is critical at the local level:

“The notion that our communities have the right to bar or limit activities which threaten public health or the quality of life of their residents has a long tradition in North Carolina’s law. This principle is the basis of common health ordinances and local land use rules, including zoning, which often involve trade-offs with property rights and other interests. Yet the oil and gas industry has the audacity to insist that this basic principle of local control should not apply to its operations.”

The restriction of local authority came under fire during both recent moratorium hearings, and residents concern with handing over control to Raleigh extends beyond fracking. A poll released yesterday by the N.C. League of Municipalities found that more than 75 percent of respondents preferred their local governments have control over billboard regulations.

“We need to send a message to the legislators in Raleigh that they can’t mandate to us how we run our county … I commend you and applaud you for taking this stance,” Rev. Hairston of Stokes County told Walnut Cove commissioners.

Edwards shared that sentiment in her remarks. “We do not want the state to define what we can do,” she said. “You guys are our local elected officials, we need you to take care of us, that’s why we elect you.”

While the three-year moratorium passed in Walnut Cove, and more localities are considering similar measures, officials in Raleigh remain hell-bent on bringing fracking to the state — even if that means ignoring the rights of citizens that could suffer the consequences.

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I heard it through the pipeline

Friday, November 6th, 2015 - posted by brian
Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects' primary backers. Photo by Will Solis,

Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects’ primary backers. Photo by Will Solis,

From Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s perspective, it’s probably best to just keep a lid on what state officials say publicly about the controversial natural gas pipelines proposed to cut through the state.

Based on reports this week, that’s exactly what he wants to do.

According to the Roanoke Times, a new policy compelling officials to brief McAuliffe’s office before commenting on the pipelines resulted from a meeting in Richmond that included representatives from 13 state agencies involved in overseeing permitting and construction.

“There’s no effort to muzzle anyone,” assured Brian Coy, a spokesperson for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe backs both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline and spoke strongly in favor of each months before either had been officially filed with federal regulators.

READ MORE: Pipe Dreams: The push to expand natural gas infrastructure

I get it. Having more than a dozen agencies handling projects as contentious, and politically precarious, as the pipelines would be difficult enough. Knowing that the press and the public are prodding officials at those agencies for information only complicates things further for the administration.

But that doesn’t make suppressing speech any less problematic. And regardless of how representatives from Richmond describe the tactic, that’s what it is. Rather than speak out of turn or hold their breath while waiting for the official OK, we can assume agency officials will just speak less often and be more guarded when they do.

“This is a gag order, pure and simple,” said Ernie Reed of Friends of Nelson County, in a press release yesterday.

Among opponents of the pipelines, the administration’s actions have only deepened skepticism of McAuliffe and his relationship with Dominion, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s primary backer.

“There’s only two possible reasons the Governor would want state agencies to ‘coordinate’ their comments — one is to control those comments and the other is to vent them through his contacts with Dominion,” said Friends of Nelson President Joanna Salidis.

Friends of Nelson and many other groups across Virginia have been dismayed at McAuliffe’s repeated emphasis on the pipelines’ potential benefits, especially when paired with his apparent ignorance of the threats they pose to landowners, natural resources and the climate.

TAKE ACTION: Urge Complete Environmental Review of Pipeline Proposals

Last week, Friends of Nelson invited the governor to visit Nelson County to speak to residents about his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and, presumably, to hear their concerns. As of today, McAuliffe has not responded to that invitation.

The Roanoke Times reminded readers of how McAuliffe campaigned on a platform of government transparency. Friends of Nelson added that the governor promised to prioritize clean energy. His abiding support of what’s good for the pipelines is putting both of those positions at risk.

In another half-hearted attempt to defend the decision, McAuliffe spokesperson Brian Coy told the Roanoke Times, “Things work better when the left hand is aware of what the right hand is doing, preferably before it winds up in the paper.”

I’m glad that wound up in the paper.

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Pro-solar group gets on Duke Energy’s bad side

Monday, November 2nd, 2015 - posted by brian
Duke Energy wants to smack down NC WARN for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church to test a state law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina. Photo by NC WARN

Duke Energy wants to smack down NC WARN for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church and testing a state law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina. Photo by NC WARN

Duke Energy wants to smack down a small nonprofit for testing a law prohibiting third-party electricity sales in North Carolina.

As the Greensboro News & Record and other outlets reported today, the nation’s largest utility is asking state regulators to fine Durham-based NC WARN “up to $1,000″ per day for setting up a small experimental solar project on the rooftop of Greensboro’s Faith Community Church.

In a statement this morning, NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren said Duke’s tactics are meant to punish and silence one of its most persistent critics. Warren says the fine, which could total more than $120,000, is “vindictive and counterproductive.”

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is expected to decide whether the project is legal, and whether NC WARN should be fined, later this month.

Today’s news is just the latest development in a local fight with statewide implications that has been brewing since early summer. NC WARN first announced back in June that it had entered a partnership with Faith Community Church to install solar panels and sell the clean power to the congregation while also purposefully putting itself “on a collision course” with Duke.

The same day, the group filed a petition with the N.C. Utilities Commission asking it to rule that the partnership is lawful, even though third-party sales in North Carolina are not. That’s where the legal lines blur.

Duke’s immovable position is that NC WARN showed “blatant disregard for the law” by setting up the third-party agreement and that it is essentially acting as an unregulated utility. NC WARN argues that by paying the upfront costs of the solar panels and selling electricity to the church for a reduced rate that it is offering a public service and expressly not acting as a utility.

It’s up to the commission to decide whether North Carolina’s law against third-party sales applies when the profit motive is not part of the equation. But even if commissioners do rule in Duke’s favor, it’s hard to see how the massive utility can win the PR battle. The company is certainly not helping its reputation as a monopoly willing to quash any clean energy efforts except its own.

The merits of increasing access to solar speak for themselves. Allowing third-party sales is one of the most successful methods for making renewable electricity more affordable. It increases consumer choice and competition among suppliers, and it has been a boon to the the nation’s clean energy economy.

Third-party sales of electricity are also completely legal in all but four states, including North Carolina, and solar financing arrangements are available to most electricity consumers in the country.

In fact, the N.C. General Assembly had a chance during the legislative session to pass a Republican-sponsored, bipartisan bill to legalize third-party sales that was supported by the solar industry and major employers including Wal-Mart, Lowes and Target. It did not.

In the case of NC WARN versus Duke Energy, the cliche comparisons to David and Goliath would be apt if they weren’t so inadequate. The array on Faith Community’s roof is around five kilowatts. It produces barely enough power to run the church’s central air conditioning for one hour each day, according to NC WARN. Can a company that made nearly $3 billion last year justify imposing a $120,000 fine for what probably amounts to a few hundred dollars of lost sales?

Also, NC WARN has repeatedly called the partnership a “test case” and promises to donate the solar system to the church if the commission decides the partnership isn’t legal — another reason Duke’s request for the fine seems spiteful.

It’s what the group is trying to accomplish that has Duke executives gritting their teeth and telling their lawyers to attack.

Speaking of the benefits of solar, Rev. Nelson Johnson, a co-pastor of the church, told the Greensboro News & Record, “It just makes sense. It makes environmental sense. It makes financial sense. It makes common sense.”

So I suppose it follows that, for all but a few, North Carolina’s law barring third-party sales does not.

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Gov. McCrory signs “Polluter Protection Act”

Monday, October 26th, 2015 - posted by amy
"H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory's three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature."

“H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory’s three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature.”

Late last Friday afternoon, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law H765, the “Regulatory Reform Act of 2015.”

This massive reform bill is better known as “The Polluter Protection Act” with its plethora of anti-environmental provisions, regulatory rollbacks and giveaways to industry.

According to Environmental Defense Fund Senior Analyst David Kelly:

This legislation is a hodgepodge of short-sighted provisions that allow a more polluted environment, plain and simple. It encourages irresponsible business practices. It insulates polluters from their responsibility to fully clean up contamination they cause. It removes protections for nearly 50,000 miles of streams that supply our drinking water, provide important fish habitat, and help keep our waterways clean and healthy. H765 eliminates sensible safeguards for our air, water, wildlife, and puts the health of our children and families on the hook when polluters should be.

Over the past weeks, thousands of North Carolinians have called or emailed the governor’s office to urge him to veto this bill.So, just how bad is it? Well, for starters, H765:

  • grants immunity to companies from civil penalties and fines that violate environmental laws if they self-report.
  • shields polluter information of its own violations by preventing use of the information in a civil case and in actions to compel cleanup of environmental contamination. More seriously, it would hide evidence from injured neighbors seeking a remedy in court.
  • weakens controls on stormwater pollution along our coasts, putting at risk the water quality that sustains our fisheries and tourism industries.
  • allows removal of air quality monitors in the state not specifically required by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, significantly reducing the number of these important environmental monitoring stations.
  • privatizes wastewater inspection and permitting — previously the duty of local health departments — removing key oversight by environmental health officials.
  • places risk of fees on environmental attorneys: Attorneys representing environmental, civic, and community organizations would be subject to fees if they lose a case against the state, making it harder for community groups to find legal representation to challenge weak state environmental permits and other regulations.

It also eliminates protections for more than half of all of North Carolina streams, threatening downstream drinking water supplies. See the full bill here.

After the passage of H765, Molly Diggins, state director for the North Carolina Sierra Club, issued the following statement:

H765 may well be the worst environmental bill of McCrory’s three years as Governor, and yet he has made it law with his signature. The Governor missed an opportunity to stand up for clean air, clean water and healthy communities. He also missed the opportunity to stand up for transparency and public process.”

Email Gov. McCrory at or call the governor’s office at (919) 814-2050 and let him know how disappointed you are in his passage of such an environmentally harmful law.

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Understanding the Stream Protection Rule

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 - posted by Erin

SPR Meme 1

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a long-awaited draft Stream Protection Rule. While it’s far from perfect, the proposed rule is a long-overdue update to protections for both surface and groundwater from mountaintop removal coal mining. It also provides much-needed clarification regarding a host of other issues, including reclamation standards and bonding requirements.

Not surprisingly, the industry is fighting the Stream Protection Rule tooth and nail. Instead of focusing on the substance of the rule though, opponents’ rely on tired “war on coal” talking points. The industry also argues these regulations are unnecessary and will undermine an otherwise viable industry — even though several large coal companies have declared bankruptcy. Let’s examine those claims.

First, this new rule was developed to update the rule currently in use — the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone rule — based on new science and realities on the ground. The past 32 years have provided ample time for additional research to prove what many Central Appalachian residents already know: that burying streams with mining waste permanently damages waterways and that mountaintop removal is linked to a host of other environmental and health problems. The Stream Protection Rule aims to address a number of current problems.

The Stream Protection Rule aims to improve methods for monitoring for and preventing damage to surface and groundwater. It’s important to note that the rule still allows for mining activities, including waste disposal, in streams. The new rule is actually weaker than the 1983 rule in this regard. The ‘83 rule prohibited mining disturbances within 100 feet of streams and prohibited damage to streams by mountaintop removal mining. In practice, however, states routinely grant variances to the ‘83 Stream Buffer Zone rule, allowing valley fill construction and other mining impacts to streams on a regular basis. This is often done by allowing companies to remediate other areas of streams that have already been degraded as a substitution for the stream miles they will bury or otherwise damage.

While it does not include a stream buffer zone requirement, the Stream Protection Rule does provide a number of added benefits for aquatic resources. New requirements include enhanced baseline monitoring data for both surface and groundwater. The availability of such data will make it easier to identify damage caused by mining. Under existing regulations, coal companies too often escape liability for damage to waterways because there is no baseline data to prove pollutants were not present before mining began. The draft rule also includes a definition of “material damage to the hydrologic balance”, which was never previously defined. Clarifying language like this is an important part of making sure that rules are enforceable on the ground.

An important question to ask is whether this type of regulation is necessary. In this case, the additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed. Research over the past decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. A recent study examined coal companies’ success in restoring or recreating streams as a form of “trade” for other streams damaged or buried during mining. The study found that 97 percent of these projects failed optimal habitat scores for aquatic life. This is strong indication that rebuilding a stream’s form will not necessarily restore its function. Additionally, the study found that a majority of these restoration projects were completed in perennial streams, while mining damage was mostly occurring in intermittent and ephemeral streams. This is important because intermittent and ephemeral streams often provide unique habitat and food resources critical to the survival of many species.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

The science clearly indicates the need for more protection of streams and other environmental resources, but would the cost of these protections be justifiable? Do the benefits to streams — and people, and tourism, and recreation, and … — outweigh the impact that the rule may have on the industry? The industry would like you to believe that this new rule will be so costly that it will create an unwarranted burden on an otherwise beneficial Central Appalachian industry. The OSMRE attempted to answer this debate through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes cost-benefit analyses. In most scenarios, the OSMRE expects minimal job loss due to the new rule, in part due to jobs created through the need to comply with the rule.

What the EIS doesn’t adequately do is take into consideration the larger context of surface mining in Appalachia and the impacts it has on local communities. First, the coal industry already has a net negative impact on the economies of the states where it occurs. Several different studies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky indicate this. In 2006, the coal industry cost the state of Kentucky $115 million. In 2009, the coal industry was estimated to cost the state of West Virginia $97.5 million and the state of Virginia $21.9 million.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

The EIS also does not consider surface mining’s global impact. The burning of coal in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Surface mining in Central Appalachia also exacerbates climate change through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, forests in the region will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by the year 2035. This is due both to deforestation during the mining process and grassland reclamation. The Stream Protection Rule improves reclamation requirements so that more mined lands are returned to native forests, instead of the now-prevalent grasslands.

Lastly, the EIS does not consider the negative health outcomes associated with mountaintop removal. The prevalence of health problems the region is well documented. Most recently, a study showed that dust from surface mines can promote the growth of lung tumors. The negative impacts to the health of communities near mines alone should be enough to justify an end to mountaintop removal.

It is true that the coal industry in Central Appalachia is facing a particularly difficult time. Unlike previous boom and bust cycles, this downturn looks to be permanent. This is exactly why additional safeguards are necessary to protect public water. Companies desperate to turn a profit in a more competitive energy market may be more inclined to bend rules or ignore regulations all together. This time marks a critical and exciting opportunity to address economic diversification throughout the region. Protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region will be integral to a successful transition.

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N.C. General Assembly restricts local governments on fracking

Monday, October 19th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Maggie Simmons

Stokes County, N.C., residents applaud after county commissioners approved a three-year moratorium on fracking. A new state law seeks to invalidate the Stokes ordinance and others like it. Photo by David Dalton of No Fracking in Stokes

Stokes County, N.C., residents applaud after county commissioners approved a three-year moratorium on fracking. A new state law seeks to invalidate the Stokes ordinance and others like it. Photo by David Dalton of No Fracking in Stokes

In the early morning hours of Sept. 30, the North Carolina General Assembly approved Senate Bill 119, which contains a provision that invalidates local ordinances put in place to regulate oil and gas operations.

The provision was added to the legislation just days after commissioners in Stokes County, N.C., unanimously approved a three-year moratorium on fracking.

The provision does not counteract the moratoria already in place in communities across the state, nor does it bar local governments from approving a moratorium. But it does make it easier for the N.C. Oil and Gas Commission to preempt such an ordinance. So it may deter the efforts of some counties aiming to pass similar ordinances, such as Chatham and Lee, which both removed fracking moratoria from their agendas following the approval of Senate Bill 119.

Previously, in order to preempt a local ordinance, state law required the Oil and Gas Commission to determine that it was put in place with the intent to “‘prohibit’ oil and gas exploration, development or production,” according to Richard Whisnant, a professor of public law and policy at the UNC School of Government. “Now, it just has to find that the local action is intended to ‘regulate’ oil and gas.”

At least one legislator regretted his vote in favor of the bill. Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-King, whose district includes Stokes County, voted in favor of the bill under the impression that it covered only technical changes. “Had I known the provision was in there, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” Holloway told reporters.

The provision “was not introduced in any bill during the session, was not germane to [Senate Bill 119], was introduced after the crossover deadline, was never heard in an appropriate committee and was never analyzed for the fiscal burdens it placed on local governments by a fiscal note,” said Ryke Longest, a professor at Duke University School of Law and Nicholas School of the Environment.

“Therefore, this changed language violated the rules which the legislature enacted for itself to govern how it handles legislation,” Longest said. Given the nature of how the provision was added to the bill, a court may have to determine its legality.

According to the text of Senate Bill 119, the provision aims to “maintain a uniform system for the management of oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities.”

Many doubt the provision was included solely for that purpose. Mary Kerley, spokeswoman for No Fracking in Stokes, released a statement condemning the General Assembly’s actions:

“[Stokes County] commissioners listened to the people of both parties and did the right thing. But this sneaky act by the legislature is not just an insult to the people of North Carolina, it also shows yet again that this legislature has no respect for local government. It couldn’t be any clearer that big money and out-of-state interests now own Raleigh, lock, stock and barrel.”

Similar concerns are rippling throughout the state, but some local governments are not backing down. On Tuesday, commissioners in Walnut Cove unanimously voted to hold a public hearing regarding the proposal of a three-year moratorium on fracking.

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Reaching for Virginia’s clean power potential

Thursday, October 8th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Virginia has an tremendous opportunity to meet its Clean Power Plan goals by expanding clean energy. But it is critical for Virginians to engage as the state develops its compliance plan.

Virginia has a tremendous opportunity to meet its Clean Power Plan goals by expanding clean energy. But it is critical for Virginians to engage as the state develops its compliance plan.

In a commentary in Capitol Connections magazine out this week, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia characterizes the job of meeting new climate change pollution reduction goals this way: “In 1962, President Kennedy challenged our nation to go the moon by 1969. If America can get to the moon in 7 years, emitting one-third less air pollution in 15 years is surely within our grasp.”

A major goal of Appalachian Voices’ and our partners’ in recent years has been to set Virginia on the track toward a safe, reliable and affordable energy future, which has meant working hard to shake our state out of the status quo. Virginia has never had a binding state renewable energy standard, and advocates have long stressed the need for both utility-owned and non-utility projects to harness clean power on a large scale.

So where does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan put Virginia? The rule represents the first requirement for fighting climate change by cutting pollution from power plants. If we use it well, the Clean Power Plan can incentivize energy efficiency programs and drive growth in solar — two ways to ensure a more secure grid and shrink bills for electric customers. But there are possible pitfalls too.

One way in which a national plan aiming for a 32 percent reduction of carbon pollution from power plants helps Virginia is by the signal it sends. It’s a further indication as to the direction the market is going. There’s a wrinkle, however, that has some renewable energy advocates worried, and it’s very relevant in Virginia: the role of new natural gas-fired power plants.

One reason for concern about possible increased gas use in Virginia is that our state’s emissions target is fairly easy to achieve. Though one wouldn’t know it from the histrionics of some politicians who oppose the standards. In a troubling development that threatens to derail Virginia’s compliance process, some state legislators are using dire-sounding warnings about electricity reliability and costs — the same red herring arguments that surfaced last year — to attempt to take away the McAuliffe administration’s authority to implement a state plan. Some insist on General Assembly approval of Virginia’s implementation plan.

The adverse effects if Virginia dramatically increases its use of natural gas are clear: higher demand for a fuel with a lifecycle that’s harmful to communities and dangerous to the environment, from the risks to water from fracking, to the impacts of dirty pipelines, to the methane released during production and transportation. More investments in a fossil fuel source are also bound to diminish the incentive for utilities to incorporate renewable energy projects into their plans. Think of how much solar power Virginia could build for the same price as 8,000 megawatts worth of new natural gas plants.

When it comes to the cost of electricity, a report by Public Citizen shows that the Clean Power Plan can cut Virginians’ electricity bills by between 7.7 and 8.4 percent by 2030, and that greater reductions are possible when well-designed energy efficiency programs are launched — programs that will also boost the economy by creating outsource-proof jobs.

Unfortunately, these affordability conclusions are in spite of and not because of Virginia’s enactment of a so-called “rate freeze” law, which is apparent in two major ways: the “freeze” goes into effect now and expires in 2020, and it turns out that the law creates a rate floor rather than a rate ceiling by blocking increases to base rates but not increases to cover infrastructure costs (which are the exact kind of costs that would ostensibly result from the need to comply with a pollution rule.)

That action is an example of why it will be so critical for Virginians to engage during this upcoming 2016 legislative session. We can press our elected officials to take steps that advance a vision of safe, affordable and reliable energy if we all take the time to participate.

Stay connected and watch for updates as we support the McAuliffe administration’s role in setting Virginia’s compliance plan, and if you have not yet provided a comment to officials about our state’s approach to the Clean Power Plan, do so here or via by the Oct. 13 deadline.

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Thank God for our Kentucky newspapers

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators' lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky's politicians and agencies aren't shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators’ lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky’s politicians and agencies aren’t shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Earlier this year, former Kentucky state Rep. Keith Hall was convicted of bribing a state mine inspector while the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet looked the other way. It was only after the Lexington Herald-Leader revealed the bribery through an open records request that the FBI began an investigation.

Now, the Louisville Courier-Journal has uncovered a confidentiality agreement between the cabinet and Whitesburg, Ky.-based Childers Oil Company that would have kept secret a proposed lawsuit settlement between the cabinet and the oil company.

As Tom Loftus of the Courier-Journal writes, “The proposed settlement in the case against Childers Oil Co. contained a sweeping confidentiality clause in which cabinet officials agreed to seal the settlement and ‘forever remain silent at all times and places and under all circumstances’ regarding all aspects of the settlement — even the existence of the settlement itself.”

The Courier-Journal, and subsequently the public, only found out about the agreement because a judge was required to reject it since it had not been signed by the cabinet’s lawyer.

The lawsuit stems from a February 2011 incident in which Childers Oil Company, owned by Whitesburg businessman Don Childers, leaked diesel fuel into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The fuel made it into the city’s water supply, triggering a three-day water advisory. Many residents were not immediately notified of the chemical’s presence in the water supply. Businesses and restaurants were critically impacted by the leak.

As a resident of Whitesburg with a vested interest in seeing my community transition to a sustainable economy independent of the region’s collapsing coal industry, this is especially troubling. This month two restaurants and a moonshine distillery opened their doors in our community. It isn’t hard to see how incidents like the 2011 diesel spill and future water advisories — they occur with frightening regularity here — make it hard for institutions to do business.

But even more importantly is what this says about the agencies that are supposed to be looking out for our health and safety. As my colleague Evan Smith told the Courier-Journal:

“The most important danger that comes from this is not what’s actually in the water, it’s the public perception that you can’t trust what comes out of your pipe and what the government is doing to protect the water. And when you’ve got confidential settlements that look like sweetheart deals, it further erodes the public’s trust in our government’s process and ability for protecting our drinking water.”

This point was driven home at a recent public hearing in Lexington on the proposed Stream Protection Rule. I listened in amazement as state Rep. Jim Gooch decried the rule — which is aimed at cutting down on the amount of mining waste dumped into streams — as pointless and unnecessary because, according to Gooch, “the biggest threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky is straight piping.”

By “straight piping,” Gooch is referring to the act of running a sewage line directly from a house to a creek, rather than a municipal sewage system or septic tank. This is very common in topographically rugged and economically distressed areas like eastern Kentucky.

And Gooch wasn’t the only one blaming Kentuckians for their water quality problems. Multiple politicians at this hearing claimed that the “trash and litter problem” was a greater threat to the region’s streams than industrial pollution.

This isn’t particularly surprising. Misleading rhetoric about the “true threats” to ecological and human health gets peddled every time new regulations threaten the coal industry’s bottom line. What’s truly egregious here is that Jim Gooch is the chair of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. His comments display a shocking disconnect from what’s actually going on on the ground in eastern Kentucky.

While it is true that straight piping is a significant threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky, it’s dangerous to assume that phenomena like straight piping and litter, as opposed to diesel spills and mining pollution, are entirely separate issues. Separating them out and assigning them arbitrary prioritization conveniently diverts attention away from the issue at hand. The need to address one problem in no way diminishes the need to address the other.

But these diversion tactics are quite lucrative. A follow-up investigation by the Courier-Journal revealed that Don Childers, a registered Republican, and others affiliated with Childers Oil Co. donated a combined $4,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party while Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration was negotiating its secret settlement with the company.

Sadly, whether it’s agreeing to secret settlement deals over diesel spills or blaming Kentucky citizens for their water quality problems, these politicians and the agencies they oversee reveal whose interests they truly serve: those of the fossil fuel industry.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule ends on Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Citizen stories counter coal industry deception

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 - posted by willie
Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va.

Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va., where clean water advocates argued for stronger protections and coal industry representatives relied on deception to rally against the rule.

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a draft of its Stream Protection Rule, a long-awaited regulation aimed at reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Along with coalfield community members and allied organizations, Appalachian Voices is asking the agency to close loopholes in the rule that state agencies might exploit, allowing coal companies to continue polluting our streams. We are also pushing for clear language in the final rule that states citizens may enforce water quality standards under the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the Office of Surface Mining to strengthen the draft Stream Protection Rule.

As part of its rule-making process, OSM held six public hearings across the nation in order to gather comments from stakeholders and impacted residents. Only two hearings were held in the central Appalachian coalfields; one in Big Stone Gap, Va., and another in Charleston, W.Va.

The hearing in Big Stone Gap provides a glimpse into how the whole series of hearings played out. About 250 people were present at the hearing, which took place on the evening of Sept. 15. At 6 p.m., U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th district, the first speaker of the evening, approached the podium. Griffith did not address any details of the Stream Protection Rule in his comments, and he provided no tangible evidence of whether or not it would achieve its intended effect. Instead, Griffith seized the opportunity to spout “war on coal” rhetoric and to accuse the rule’s supporters of caring more about mayflies than human beings.

Concluding his comments after five minutes, Rep. Griffith was on his way out of the building when Wise County resident Jane Branham confronted him and asked him to stay and listen to what his constituents had to say. Griffith declined this invitation and left promptly at 6:11 p.m.

Had Rep. Griffith stayed, he would have heard Mary Darcy from Wise who said:

Despite rules and laws, tons of waste are dumped into these waterways regularly. How does this happen? Do the states not enforce clean water regulations? Do our elected representatives turn their backs on the needs of the people with something as critical as water?

Darcy was not the only speaker to call out state agencies for repeatedly failing to enforce regulations. Diana Withen, a local high school biology teacher, implored the OSM to include clear language allowing for citizen monitoring and enforcement, stating, “We know that government budgets are tight and that regulatory agencies are going to continue to face budget cuts in the future. So allowing concerned citizens to help monitor the water quality in our streams makes sense.”

A reconstructed "stream" below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

A reconstructed “stream” below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

Countering the many citizens who spoke up for clean water were the numerous coal industry representatives that railed against the rule. But instead of addressing the rule’s content, they expended a great deal of time and energy accusing the Office of Surface Mining and President Obama of deliberately attacking coal mining for political gain.

Scott Barton, a mine superintendent at Murray Energy’s Harrison County Mine in northern West Virginia, argued that the Obama administration “hides behind the myth of global warming to justify it’s job destroying agenda. Everyone in the coal industry knows this is a lie.”

Other pro-industry, anti-regulatory speakers described the rule as a “weapon of mass destruction,” the “nuclear option” and “the last nail in the crucifixion of the coal industry.” Sadly, preference on the part of the industry and politicians for rhetoric over substance was not unique to the Big Stone Gap hearing. Much more of the same could be heard at each of the five other hearings in Charleston, Denver, Lexington Ky., Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule has been extended in response to industry requests and will now remain open until Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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DENR is a “BOOR”

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015 - posted by amy

{ Editor’s Note } This op-ed by our North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams first appeared in the News & Observer on Sept. 4.

Cleanup efforts underway at Duke Energy's Dan River plant after the 2014 coal ash spill. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cleanup efforts underway at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant after the 2014 coal ash spill. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

UPDATE: On Sept. 15, a North Carolina judge overruled the effort by DENR mentioned in this op-ed to block an agreement between Duke Energy and environmental groups that includes plans to excavate coal ash from three additional sites.

Two years ago, I was navigating the dramatic change in North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources following the politically driven and hostile takeover of the agency by the General Assembly. The change ultimately forced me to resign as a regional supervisor with the agency. One of my complaints was DENR’s new mission statement, written by then-Secretary of Environment John Skvarla. The mission statement was so important to the new regime that our bosses gave us pop quizzes on the wording.

So let’s check in on how DENR is doing to meet its new mission. According to the “Fundamental Philosophy” section:

“Agency personnel, operating within the confines of the regulations, must always be a resource of invaluable public assistance, rather than a bureaucratic obstacle of resistance.”

The biggest issue DENR has had to deal with these last couple of years is coal ash, which affects residents from one end of the state to the other. Yet the agency has been the epitome of a “bureaucratic obstacle of resistance,” or BOOR, on the issue. The most recent BOORish behavior is the agency’s opposition to Duke Energy’s proposal to clean up coal ash above and beyond what the law requires. DENR argues this would “shortcut” the Coal Ash Management Act passed last year.

The law identifies four of Duke Energy’s coal ash pits that are particularly problematic and requires DENR to prioritize them for clean-up. It also requires the agency to rate the risk posed by the remaining coal ash sites and assign the level of cleanup, and it stipulates that any sites rated as “high risk” must be excavated and the ash disposed of in a lined landfill either on-site or off-site.

In addition to the four sites, Duke Energy, based on its own analysis, has opted to commit to the highest level cleanup at three additional sites, proposing the idea in motions filed in an ongoing legal fight among Duke Energy, DENR and environmental groups (Appalachian Voices included). DENR will not agree, clinging to a BOORish mentality that it and only it can designate sites for clean-up, and insisting that the lengthy, bureaucratic process must be followed.

Let’s check out another section of DENR’s new mission statement, titled “Fundamental Science”:

“Environmental science is quite complex, comprised of many components, and most importantly, contains diversity of opinion. In this regard, all public programs and scientific conclusions must be reflective of input from a variety of legitimate, diverse and thoughtful perspectives.”

In court filings, DENR attorneys say, “Science should inform the decision as to which impoundments are closed first.” Yes, it should. As required by law, Duke Energy is collecting and delivering to DENR information, data and scientific analysis about its coal ash pits and has been including the public in that process. It’s the same data on which the agency will make its risk rating. So here, the BOOR is failing to consider analysis by Duke Energy, not to mention the perspectives of multiple environmental nonprofits, a suite of expert attorneys, a state judge and public opinion – all of whom have agreed to the highest level of cleanup at the three additional sites – as “legitimate, diverse and thoughtful.”

DENR’s creative interpretation of its own mission statement is just one reflection of this administration’s broader hostility to the notion that public servants have a responsibility to protect the natural resources and therefore the public health and welfare of the Tar Heel state. Gov. Pat McCrory is actively promoting our shorelines as prime areas for offshore oil and gas drilling. Environment Secretary Donald Van der Vaart stands against two fundamental federal laws – the Clean Power Plan, the first-ever rule to limit carbon pollution from America’s power plants, and a 2015 clarification of the Clean Water Act to protect many more miles of streams.

Commerce Secretary Skvarla (formerly of DENR) is promoting the idea that there may be natural gas deposits in Stokes County and is campaigning for budget money, aka taxpayer dollars, to lure fracking companies to North Carolina.

With all these anti-environmental positions, DENR has become more like a fossil fuel advocacy group than environmental protector. So this is progress according to the new DENR? It is painful to witness, and I am disheartened that the leadership has changed the agency to a shell of its former self.

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