Posts Tagged ‘Science and Nature’

Don’t Depress, Divest — Reflections on’s Climate Change Roadshow

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012 - posted by brian

Executive director of The Sierra Club, Michael Brune, speaks at the "Do the Math" tour stop in Durham, N.C.

On Monday, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben and’s climate change roadshow, the “Do the Math” tour, packed the Page Auditorium at Duke University. The energy in the room was high, the crowd was diverse and full of familiar faces, and maybe I’m just biased, but my younger brother and I couldn’t help but recognize the strength of North Carolina’s environmental community. As we settled into our seats, the house lights dimmed and, anticipating McKibben’s speech, the fellow sitting behind us whispered, “If he gets too gloom and doom, I’m leaving.”

McKibben has become well-known for presenting the stark reality of climate change and the challenges we face in the simplest terms possible. By his own admission as he took the stage, his basic role in life “is to bum people out.” Fortunately, for the group behind me and any other eco-anxious attendees, the “Do the Math” tour isn’t about gloom and doom, it’s about getting down to brass tacks. It’s about going on the offensive, and after fossil fuel companies. Or as McKibben said, the “fossil fuel industry is wrecking the future, so we’re going to take away their money.”

That’s exactly the message of the “Do the Math” tour: If it is not OK to wreck the planet, it is not OK to profit from it. So we, especially universities and large institutions, should divest from them. McKibben put it more eloquently in his most recent column for Orion magazine when he wrote that “It’s completely nonsensical for [universities] to pay for educations with investments that will guarantee there’s no planet on which to make that learning count. Pension funds can’t sensibly safeguard people’s retirements by investing in companies that wreck the future.” (more…)

Climate in the Classroom

Friday, October 19th, 2012 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Hot Air, Stringent Standards and Tangible Teaching Techniques Complicate a Crucial Science

By Molly Moore

To learn about how schoolyard trees respond to the changing seasons, students also have to identify tree species in this after-school activity. Photo courtesy of Pi Beta Phi Elementary

Last spring, leaked documents from a conservative think-tank revealed plans to develop and market a K-12 global warming curriculum.

Science educators might have welcomed a new attempt to educate America’s youth about climate change if the organization that plans to develop the curriculum, The Heartland Institute, wasn’t known for denial of accepted climate science. Several months after the documents were exposed, Heartland unveiled a series of billboards equating anyone who accepts climate change science with “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and other unsavory figures.

According to one leaked document, the institute plans to create a curriculum promoting the idea that human activity contributes to climate change is “a major scientific controversy,” in direct conflict with nearly 97 percent of active climate scientists who agree that the climate is changing and that human activity is a significant cause.

Direct classroom pressure from groups such as Heartland is just one of many attempts by supporters of the energy industry to stymie climate change education. In another case, environmental organization Greenpeace used a Freedom of Information Act request to discover that ExxonMobil was funding climate change skeptics as recently as 2010, despite a slew of ads promoting increased math and science education and a 2008 pledge to stop funding deniers of global warming.

Some state governments have also cast a shadow over established science curriculum. This year, Tennessee became the second state to pass a law that brings critiques of topics such as evolution, climate change and the chemical origin of life into the classroom.

With powerful interests acting against climate change education, it’s no wonder a National Science Teachers Association poll found that 82 percent of educators have faced skepticism about the subject from students and 54 percent have faced skepticism from parents. Still, the scientific and science education communities overwhelmingly accept that climate change is real and that part of science education is informing students about that reality.

In fact, Dr. Melinda Wilder, an Eastern Kentucky University professor who specializes in science education, has been bringing climate change science into her work since the mid-nineties, she says, by letting her students “find evidence and then talk about what that evidence means.”

Confronting Bias

For teachers, finding reliable classroom materials can be a barrier to effective climate education, especially since tight school budgets and time-strapped schedules encourage teachers to look to outside sources for lesson materials. Filling that need, the American Coal Foundation paid Scholastic, Inc. — a well-known provider of educational materials and textbooks — to develop and distribute a set of lessons dubbed the “United States of Energy.” With the aid of Scholastic, the lesson plan reached at least 66,000 fourth-grade classrooms in 2009, according to a blog post by the coal foundation. But once the biased source of the curriculum gained attention in the national press, Scholastic withdrew the lessons.

In an article in the activist educational magazine Rethinking Schools, editor Bill Bigelow noted that the coal foundation’s materials claim to meet national education standards for fourth grade, and specifically purport to teach about the advantages and disadvantages of different types of energy. But Bigelow writes that the curriculum fails to mention the health or environmental problems tied to coal, or the fact that burning coal is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases. “True, a full exploration of these ‘disadvantages’ of coal might overwhelm 4th graders—or anyone else, for that matter,” Bigelow’s article says. “But the alternative is not to leave them out entirely and, thus, turn coal into an energy superhero.”

According to Eastern Kentucky University’s Dr. Wilder, some material from the American Coal Foundation can be useful if presented in context. For example, she says, students in Appalachia often assume that their region produces most of the country’s coal, a misconception that is countered by a “United States of Energy” activity that asks students to use a map to identify the top 15 coal-producing states. Wilder notes that just because one activity has merit doesn’t mean that it provides thought-provoking follow-up questions or that other lessons are accurate.

“Teachers have to look at curriculum materials critically,” she says.

Standard Science

Presently, there are no uniform standards for teaching climate and energy in the Southeast. Still, proponents of teaching about climate have reason to be optimistic. A first draft of new voluntary national standards, called Next Generation Science Standards, was released last spring, and a second draft will be available for public comment this fall. The first draft contained upgrades such as a high school section about managing human impacts on the planet, including the effects of greenhouse gases.

Simply including climate science in the state education standards does not necessarily lead to quality instruction. “Most of the time the earth and environmental science courses are not the high-stakes testing courses … It might be on the books but that doesn’t mean it’s being taught,” says Karen McNeal, a principal investigator at Climate Literacy Project of the Southeast.

To help teachers find effective climate lessons, the Climate Literacy Project has gone through 100 lessons and matched them with science standards in southeastern states to create a publicly searchable database. All the lessons have been peer-reviewed by educators and scientists with the national Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network, so educators can easily find a lesson that meets their needs.

Searching for eighth grade coursework that meets Kentucky education standards? The database pulls up 64 results, ranging from a mock oil-spill activity that studies the effectiveness and cost of cleanup methods to an exploration of how colors at the earth’s surface affect the amount of warming.

Communicating Climate

Quality learning begins with a teacher who is comfortable and enthusiastic about the subject at hand. John DiDiego, education director for the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont in Townsend, Tenn., organizes climate change workshops for educators. Depending on state and grade level, teachers might not be required to teach about climate change, but DiDiego says those lessons can be tied into other subjects.

“[Climate change] certainly fits in with a lot of what they’re trying to teach, but the teacher has to make that connection,” DiDiego says. “It could be a math problem related to ‘how much carbon does a certain tree species of a certain size sequester?’ So the kids can go out and make measurements. It’s all about math, but the end result is learning about carbon sequestration.”

Learning about the climate gives students opportunities to observe and measure their surroundings. Above, Sevier County, Tenn., sixth graders use meteorological tools to study weather atop Look Rock. Photo courtesy of Pi Beta Phi Elementary

DiDiego says that teachers who attend the institute’s workshops consistently say they need access to current, reliable information about climate change and its regional and local impacts. He notes that the consequences in the Southern Appalachians are not predicted to be as dramatic as in other parts of the country, and that communicating those subtleties to a classroom can be difficult.

To make the global issue tangible, the workshops advise teachers to look at impacts on creatures such as salamanders. Appalachia is a diversity hotspot for these lungless amphibians, which depend on narrow ranges of precipitation and temperature and are at risk from habitat loss.

Making chemistry concepts visual is another challenge, says Erika Schneider, a former classroom teacher and current outreach coordinator for Sundance Power Systems, Inc., a North Carolina renewable energy company. When she talks to high schoolers about carbon dioxide, she initiates a chemical reaction so they can actually see the normally invisible gas and compare the amount of carbon dioxide in ambient air to the amount in a human exhalation or the amount released from a car tailpipe.

Taking It Outdoors

Just outside the home or classroom, climate lessons are constantly unfolding. Over time, studying seasonal changes such as when trees bud or lose their leaves and when migrating birds arrive can reveal the “fingerprint of climate change,” says DiDiego.

Students at Pi Beta Phi, a public elementary school in Sevier County, Tenn., are monitoring how the changing seasons affect 22 trees near their school. Pi Beta Phi has a lengthy partnership with Parks as Classrooms, a National Park Service initiative that encourages teachers to use national parks as places to facilitate learning about cultural and natural resources. At the school, students begin talking about the idea of climate as early as second grade.

By the time students reach sixth grade, they have a good understanding of the underlying science, says Melissa Crisp, the school’s Parks as Classrooms coordinator. In addition, students here “have grown up in this environment of looking at things open-mindedly and broadly,” she says. Sixth-graders debate topics such as the effects of coal plants on climate change and the merits of various types of energy. They head out to a nearby overlook and take weather samples; when they return to the classroom, it’s time for statistical analysis.

What students do with the knowledge they uncover is up to them. Karen McNeal of the Climate Literacy Project of the Southeast simply wants students to be informed.

“It’s our job to do our best to inform people of the science,” she says. “As long as we’re doing that and not cherry-picking the science, [as long as we’re] informing them of the whole science, the whole story, and giving them the skill-set to make their own decisions, it’s up to the students and the parents to make those decisions.”

COAL 101

A quick survey of major fossil fuel foundations reveals that most also dabble in crafting energy-related teaching materials. In Appalachia, one of the most prominent is a nonprofit called Coal Education Development and Resource, Inc., a group with the mission to “facilitate the increase of knowledge and understanding of the many benefits the Coal Industry provides in our daily lives.” The organization provides cash awards to teachers who develop superior lessons about coal; award-winning curriculum includes lessons on subjects such as geology and mine safety, but also includes materials created by industry groups such as Friends of Coal.

A coloring book distributed by Friends of Coal shows smiling kids on the back page with a speech bubble that exclaims, “Coal is necessary in our energy future!” The workbook addresses “Coal and our Environment” with a cartoon of a cheerful dog washing coal, smiling scrubbers in action, and kids planting fir trees atop a former surface mine. Topics such acid mine drainage, slurry impoundments leaching toxic metals into groundwater, and poorly reclaimed mine sites are not included in the coloring book.

Study Shows Extensive Downstream Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining

Friday, July 27th, 2012 - posted by Appalachian Voices

By Emily Yu
2012 Stanback intern

A new scientific study has confirmed what most Appalachians have known all along: the damaging impacts of mountaintop removal mining extend far beyond the destructive sites themselves.

Photo by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices, 2010

Polluted stream in Magoffin County, KY

Researchers from Duke and Baylor Universities have found that a decade of mountaintop removal mining has destroyed the aquatic biodiversity of over 1,700 miles of streams in southern West Virginia. Dr. Emily Bernhardt, the study’s lead author, explains that while previous research has analyzed the nature of mountaintop removal’s ecological impacts, this is the first to look into exactly how far-reaching these impacts may be. And the results are not pretty:

After analyzing ten years of maps of a 7,500 square mile area, researchers were able to conclude that when 5% of the land was converted to mountaintop removal mining sites, the resulting mineral and heavy metal pollution was enough to kill so many sensitive aquatic species that 22% of the area’s streams would be considered biologically impaired under West Virginia criteria.

The study also estimates that while valley fills in the area have buried 480 miles of streams, ultimately, the pollution runoff may stretch to around 4 to 6 times as far. Given that previous research has demonstrated the impacts of mountaintop mining pollution on human health, think about what this might also mean for the people living farther downstream.

This is only the latest of many peer-reviewed, published scientific studies that have concluded that mountaintop removal mining damages Appalachia. How much longer can the coal industry and our legislators continue to bury their heads in the sand and blatantly ignore the science?

Celebrating the Past, Working for the Future

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012 - posted by brian

I have only seen a bald eagle in the wild once. It was during an otherwise uneventful excursion on Lake James near Morganton, N.C. It soared silently overhead, and in a matter of seconds I felt my stomach tighten, the hair on my arms stood up and tears welled up in my eyes. I considered it a gift.

The patriotic pin

That’s the first memory that came to mind when I began to write this post — how I once was lucky enough to see a bald eagle, our national bird and a symbol of our national pride, glide across a lake. The Fourth of July calls not only for the commemoration of our still young nation’s independence, but for the multitude of things that make America great. But before we light up the sky tonight, it seems appropriate to reflect on the nature of our national pride.

Surveying my desk, the lack of red, white and blue makes me self-conscious. Finally, I spot one of the “I Heart Mountains” pins so ubiquitous around the Appalachian Voices office. Its blue ridges and bright red heart bring the same emotions as that tried and true trio of colors. But it’s the simple phrase that evokes feelings of pride for the places and people we work to protect. After all, when we say we love America, we mean we love the people and places in America as much as the ideals on which the nation was founded. (more…)

Nally & Hamilton Case Continues in State Court

Friday, December 9th, 2011 - posted by eric

Yesterday Appalachian Voices along with our partners Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, and Waterkeeper Alliance challenged the recent settlement between Nally & Hamilton and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in state court.

Click here to see the press release with more information on this newest development.

Click here to see the how the case has developed.

Click here to view the state court petition.

Several Kentucky news outlets covered this development. Click the links below to see the news articles.
Ronnie Ellis for the Daily Independent
Erica Peterson for WFPL Public Radio
Bill Estep and Beth Musgrave for the Lexington Herald-Leader

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet cuts deal with Nally and Hamilton for Water Pollution Violations

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 - posted by eric

Last week the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet entered a settlement with Nally and Hamilton Enterprises to resolve tens of thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act. The pending agreed order, originally submitted in September, was signed by the Cabinet Secretary Len Peters, now making it official.

Nally and Hamilton is one of the largest producers of Mountain Top removal Coal in Kentucky. They are also being sued by a number of citizens over flooding caused by one of their mines, which lead to a great deal of property damage and killed two people. (more…)

Tell Congress We Can’t Afford The Status Quo on Coal Ash!

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 - posted by Appalachian Voices

This Friday, the House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 2273, the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, a bill that puts the profits of coal ash polluters above public health. H.R. 2273 subverts public support of the EPA’s proposed federal coal ash rules by leaving coal ash pollution in the hands of states with weak or non-existent regulations.

This bill is one of many designed to effectively weaken our clean water laws and allow Big Coal polluters to keep disregarding our waterways and public health.

Please tell your representatives in Congress to vote NO on H.R. 2273.

Coal ash is the nation’s second-largest waste stream after municipal garbage. Coal ash slurry — a by-product of coal-fired power plants — is highly toxic. People living near an unlined coal ash pond are at a 1-in-50 risk of cancer from arsenic, a rate that is 2,000 times greater than the acceptable level of risk!

As we approach the third anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disaster that spilled over a billion gallons of toxic sludge into the Emory River in Harriman, Tenn. and cost over $1 billion to clean up, it’s clear that we’re overdue for basic health and environmental protections from coal ash.

Coal ash slurry buried 300 acres when a coal ash impoundment failed at Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant.

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to control hazardous waste from “cradle-to-grave” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Since beginning the process for coal ash nearly three years ago, the agency has received over 450,000 comments asking for strong protection for coal ash waste.

The EPA’s Subtitle C plan would classify coal ash as “hazardous waste” and provide the strong protection the public demands. The agency’s other proposal, the weaker Subtitle D, would rank coal ash as “non-hazardous waste” but still grant some federal oversight. Rep. David McKinley’s (R-W.Va.) bill, H.R. 2273, takes Subtitle D, the lesser plan, and dramatically weakens it by removing basic federal safeguards. See this chart for a breakdown of proposed coal ash regulations.

H.R. 2273 would leave coal ash disposal standards even weaker than the federal rules that govern household waste. Supposedly, municipal solid waste rules provided the model for this legislation. But household waste standards are centered around protecting public health and the environment — this bill makes no mention of either.

Clearly, a lagoon of toxic slurry laden with metals such as arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury is different than an town dump. Yet H.R. 2273 doesn’t require states to inspect ponds in order to ensure structural stability, detect groundwater leaks, or discover other threats to public health and safety. Municipal waste facilities are bound by federal law to clean up or close dumps that contaminate groundwater, but this bill would let coal ash polluters get away without groundwater cleanup standards. Check out this fact sheet for more information about H.R. 2273’s dangerous shortfalls.

Great New Post about our Fight against Big Coal in Kentucky

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 - posted by eric

We would like to thank Daily Kos and DWG for writing an awesome article about our ongoing legal battle with 3 coal companies and the state regulatory agency in Kentucky. Check out the article here.

Great News for Clean Water in Kentucky

Friday, February 11th, 2011 - posted by eric

In a precedent setting move today, Judge Phillip Shepherd granted limited intervention rights to Appalachian Voices, KFTC, the Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance in the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Case against International Coal Group (ICG) and Frasure Creek Mining.


Here is the full press release:


Judge grants environmental groups the right to
intervene in Kentucky Clean Water Act case

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Donna Lisenby…. 704-277-6055….
Sandra Diaz….407-739-6465….
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

A Kentucky judge today granted environmental groups a motion to intervene in a legal case against two coal companies in violation of the Clean Water Act.

State Court Judge Phillip Shepherd set a precedent by issuing an order granting four environmental groups’ motion to intervene in a lawsuit between the State Energy and Environment Cabinet and defendants, ICG and Frasure Creek Mining, the two largest coal companies in Kentucky. The ruling marks the first time a third party intervention has been allowed in a state proceeding between a potential Clean Water Act violator and a state agency in Kentucky.

The plaintiffs in the case include Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance as well as four individual citizens.

Saying it would be “an abuse of discretion to deny those citizens and environmental groups the right to participate in this action,” Judge Shepherd ordered that the groups be allowed to fully participate in the legal proceedings leading up to a June 14th hearing on whether the proposed settlement between the Cabinet and the coal companies is “fair, adequate, and reasonable, as well as consistent with the public interest.”

“We look forward to working cooperatively with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to execute the Judge’s orders to conduct additional inquiry and get to the bottom of this case,” said Donna Lisenby, Director of Water Programs for Appalachian Voices.

The case was brought against the coal companies by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in December, in response to a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue filed by the environmental groups in October 2010. The original notice alleged 20,000 violations of the Clean Water Act, with potential fines of $740 million for the companies. The Cabinet’s proposed settlement attempted to fine the coal companies a combined total of only $660,000.

The environmental groups moved to intervene in the proposed settlement between the state and the coal companies, providing evidence that the state’s plan did not sufficiently address the alleged violations or deter future violations. The judge ordered the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to allow public comments on the case, eventually receiving many letters from citizens across the state.

Judge Phillips summed up the key reasons for granting the intervention in his order, stating “The Cabinet, by its own admission, has ignored these admitted violations for years. The citizens who brought these violations to light through their own efforts have the legal right to be heard when the Cabinet seeks judicial approval of a resolution of the environmental violations that were exposed through the efforts of these citizens. In these circumstances, it would be an abuse of discretion to deny those citizens and environmental groups the right to participate in this action, and to test whether the proposed consent decree is “fair, adequate, and reasonable, as well as consistent with the public interest.”

“We are very pleased with the decision, which will allow us to conduct depositions and other discovery,” said Peter Harrison, a third year law student with the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic who argued on behalf of the environmental organizations and citizens in court last month. “By allowing our intervention, the judge has ensured that the people’s interest in clean, healthy waters will be adequately represented as we move forward.”

“Enforcement of clean water laws, enacted to protect the public from harmful pollution, was intended to be a transparent process,” said Attorney Mary Cromer of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and counsel for the plantiffs. “By allowing intervention, the Court has made sure that will be the case. This is a major victory for the citizens of Kentucky.”

Community members like Ted Withrow, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, were encouraged by the decision. “For over 100 years the people of Kentucky have been blocked by King Coal and the government they control, from redress of wrongs inflicted upon them,” said Withrow. “Judge Shepherd is to be commended for his brave action in upholding the rights of the people. He has put his finger on the scales of justice today and attempted to bring balance.”


For interviews and images, please contact
Visit for details.
For video from the court room in January, please see: Kentucky Legal Action Update

Come Out and Fight for Clean Water

Friday, February 4th, 2011 - posted by eric

Attention Boonies!

Come out this Monday night to support strong new regulations on coal tar based asphalt sealants, the source of the Hodges Creek fish kill last summer.

The Boone Town Council will be having a public hearing on Monday, February 7th at 7:00pm at the Boone Town Council Chambers (next to the police station on 321 and in front of K-mart). We need everyone to come out and speak in favor of a newly proposed ban on coal tar based asphalt sealants, in the town of Boone. If you don’t want to speak that’s ok too, just come out to show your support.

Here is the proposed new rule.

Help keep this from ever happening again: