Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee’

Federal agency considers restricting surface mining in Tennessee

Monday, January 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Charlotte Wray, Spring 2016 Editorial Assistant

speakers at public hearing

Carol Judy of the Clearfork Community Institute and Willie Dodson, right, of Appalachian Voices speak in support of the Lands Unsuitable For Mining designation at a January hearing in Jacksboro, Tenn.

The Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee are home to diverse habitats and headwater streams that are vital to tourism and safe water, but these have been jeopardized by the threat of coal mining.

The federal government is deciding whether to grant the State of Tennessee’s 2010 request to designate a portion of land in East Tennessee unsuitable for surface coal mining.

Stand up for the Cumberland Mountains! Send your comment to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

In 2010, Tennessee petitioned the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to prevent surface coal mining on land within 600 feet of certain ridgelines in a 67,000-acre area. The land is located north of Knoxville in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and the Emory River Tracts Conservation Easement.

The state contended that surface coal mining would not be in accordance with state or local land use plans for the areas, and that mining operations would “significantly damage the natural systems and esthetic, recreational, cultural, and historic values of the ridge lines and their viewsheds that exist within these fragile lands.”

The federal surface mining agency’s draft Environmental Impact Statement released on Dec. 10, 2015, outlined several possible responses to the state petition. The agency’s preferred alternative would designate the requested ridgetop corridors in the 67,000-acre area as unsuitable for coal mining. Appalachian Voices and our allies, including the Tennessee-based grassroots advocacy group Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, support this ban and urge the federal agency to list the area as “fragile lands” to ensure the greatest protection.

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

The agency’s preferred alternative would also allow certain areas that were abandoned prior to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to be re-mined, if mining companies acquire the necessary permits. SOCM believes that any re-mining should be strictly limited to areas where it is the only solution to the significant environmental problems at the abandoned sites.

At the hearing in Jacksboro, Tenn., on Jan. 14, Tom Chadwell, a resident of Campbell County who lives beside the petition area on land that has been owned by his family since 1872, voiced his support for the ban. He acknowledged the heritage of mining in both his family and Campbell County. His grandfather and grandmother were both in the mining industry before the stock market crash in 1929, he said, but that was a way for economic growth then and it should not be so now.

“Just because Campbell County is having tough times, and we are, doesn’t mean that we do whatever we can whether it’s right or wrong,” he said. “I do believe tourism is a way to go, we have a beautiful county, a beautiful community and I don’t want to see us [risk] our land that nature has spent most of the last 50 years trying to recover.”

This land, including the Cumberland Trail, is a highly valued tourism area, generating $177.4 million per year, creating 1,420 jobs and producing more than $16 million in state and local tax receipts, according to SOCM. Surface mining operations would destroy vibrant lands, clean water and natural resources and negatively impact Tennessee’s growing tourism industry.

The federal agency’s draft Environmental Impact Statement determined that the areas at stake are “fragile lands” that are ecologically significant and contain fish and wildlife habitat and recreational resources that could be severely damaged by coal mining activities.

A final decision on the proposal will be made after the 45-day public comment period ends on Jan. 25.

Submit your comment here.

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Faced with Threats to Nolichucky River, Residents Unite

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns
Jack Renner sits in his tractor as workers with U.S. Nitrogen start digging to install the pipeline on his land against his will.

Jack Renner sits in his tractor as workers with U.S. Nitrogen start digging to install the pipeline on his land against his will.

A Bridge Over Troubled Water
By Lorelei Goff

Winding southwestward from the North Toe River in Avery County, N.C., the Nolichucky River transitions between a wide, placid ribbon, a narrow torrent of whitewater and a shallow, dancing shoal during its 115-mile course into East Tennessee. Its waters have long been troubled by sediment and runoff from poor agricultural practices, radioactive waste from the Nuclear Fuels Systems plant in Erwin, Tenn., and pollution from other human impacts that have threatened its beauty, diverse ecosystems, recreational opportunities and use as a public water source.

A new threat was proposed along its banks in 2011. Industrial explosives manufacturer U.S. Nitrogen eyed the site of the historic Conway Bridge, which joins Greene and Cocke counties in Tennessee, for a 12-mile dual pipeline. The pipeline will pump up to 1.9 million gallons of water from the river to the company’s ammonium nitrate plant and return 500,000 gallons of effluent daily. The subsidiary of the Austin Powder Company, which supplies explosives for mining operations, plans to operate two ammonia plants, a nitric acid plant and an ammonium nitrate solution plant at the site. A calcium nitrate plant operated by Yara International and a carbon dioxide recycling plant to be operated by an unnamed company are planned at the same location.

Controversies marked the construction of the pipeline, including alleged conflicts of interest by local officials and lawsuits over right-of-ways, trespassing and open meetings violations. These controversies and concerns about the river — ranging from the fate of the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel, air and water quality, and the lack of an environmental impact study — are bridging social and cultural gaps between predominantly liberal environmentalists, conservative landowners and apolitical residents.

April Bryant, founding director of the Save the Nolichucky group, organized a mock funeral on the Conway Bridge to protest the pipeline. “I get emotional because the Conway Bridge is my family history,” she says. “My great-grandfather’s great-grandfather was Joseph Conway, who fought in the Revolutionary War.”

According to Bryant, she sees the fight for the river as a “fight against tyranny” and hopes her ancestor would be proud of the group for defending it. But she says it’s the environmental concerns that are bringing folks together.

Ann Calfee of Save the Nolichucky measures the pH of the river below a U.S. Nitrogen work site in December 2014. Photos by April Bryant,

Ann Calfee of Save the Nolichucky measures the pH of the river below a U.S. Nitrogen work site in December 2014. Photos by April Bryant,

“Our well is less than 300 yards from where the pipeline goes into the river,” she says. “There are limestone caves and sinkholes … so I’m sure that water from the river works its way all around under the ground to our wells. My kids drink out of that. Who’s going to check it?”

CWEET, or Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee, is an environmental advocacy group that works for clean water and other social justice issues in the region. The group partners with the nonprofit environmental research laboratory Environmental Quality Institute to conduct chemical and biological water monitoring on the Nolichucky. The groups have completed two rounds of testing to gather baseline data before operations at the plant begin and will continue sampling on a quarterly basis with the help of volunteers.

Ann Calfee is a director of Save the Nolichucky and a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Transportation, U.S. Nitrogen and the Greene County Industrial Development Board. The suit questions the legality of permits that allowed the pipeline to be installed in state highway right-of-ways reserved for utilities that serve the public. Calfee says residents are volunteering with CWEET because of concerns about how the plant’s operations will impact the health of the river.

“Our main concerns are what will happen to the aquatic life, the vegetation and the wells,” she says.

CWEET’s director, Deborah Bahr, sees the local efforts as part of a larger grassroots movement to preserve the area and demand high-quality jobs that don’t harm the community. One local teacher created an Advanced Placement class that will give students an opportunity to take part in water testing. Bahr says she hopes CWEET will become a water testing resource for other communities that have concerns about their waterways.

Though the troubled waters flowing under the Conway Bridge are still at risk, the impact on community engagement in environmental and social justice issues in the area has been positive.

“It’s been this really weird mix of people who have come together with all these different views and all these different beliefs,” says Bryant. “But we just want to save the river. We’ve all come together with that purpose.”

Organizing Around the Clean Power Plan

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by interns

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized the first limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants earlier this year. Known as the Clean Power Plan, the rules give states a wide degree of flexibility to determine how to reduce their carbon emissions.

Our teams are hard at work in the Appalachian states to ensure that energy efficiency and renewable energy are priorities and our dependence on fossil fuels is replaced with sustainable energy choices.

In North Carolina, the Clean Power Plan has met resistance from government environmental officials. Our team’s focus is on generating citizen input at the state’s December public hearings to demand a true clean energy plan. In preparation for the hearings, we are drafting public and technical comments and partnering with environmental justice groups, faith organizations and health groups.

In Tennessee, we are launching an on-the-ground campaign to educate Volunteer State residents about the plan and encourage state officials to include clean energy in their power mix.

And in Virginia, we are calling for a state plan that will meet and exceed the 38% pollution reduction target, supporting a citizen movement to press decision-makers to address carbon pollution in a significant, long-term way through emissions trading with other states.

Learn more about our work regarding carbon pollution and climate change.

Coal Ash Management Continues to Challenge Region

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

Conservation groups in North Carolina, including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper, are challenging a settlement between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality that significantly reduces the $25.1 million fine levied against the company for pollution violations at its Sutton Lake power plant near Wilmington, N.C.

The settlement requires the company to pay a much smaller fine of $7 million and, according to a statement issued by Duke Energy, the arrangement “resolves former, current and future groundwater issues at all 14 North Carolina coal facilities, including the retired Sutton plant.” In addition to the fine, the settlement also requires Duke to accelerate cleanup at four of these sites, each of which has documented contamination outside Duke’s property lines.

Also in North Carolina, a U.S. District Court judge sided with environmental groups in dismissing Duke Energy’s challenge to their lawsuit over water pollution and safety violations at Duke’s retired Buck Power Plant near Salisbury.

In her ruling, Judge Loretta C. Biggs also raised concerns about the DEQ, formerly known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “The court is unable to find that [the agency] was trying diligently or that its state enforcement action was calculated, in good faith, to require compliance with the Clean Water Act,” she wrote.

Finally, the DEQ is required to prepare its recommendations for the state’s coal ash impoundment by Dec. 31. The N.C. Coal Ash Management Commission was set up to advise this process, yet as of late November the commission is unable to reach a quorum due to a challenge to the constitutionality of six of its nine members. Until the challenge to its membership is resolved, the commission will be unable to contribute to the assessment.

In Tennessee, residential wells near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Gallatin Fossil Plant in Sumner County have tested positive for elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. According to The Tennessean, local residents learned this information in letters from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

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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Follow the leader: A Tennessee electric co-op moves forward

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly
Appalachian Electric Cooperative recently marked its 75th year of service. Today the small East Tennessee utility is a leader among regional electric cooperatives. Photo from

Appalachian Electric Cooperative recently marked its 75th year of service. Today the small East Tennessee utility is a leader among regional electric cooperatives. Photo from

As one rural electric cooperative in Appalachia expands clean energy and technology, other utilities in the region can learn from its example of leadership.

Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC), like many other utilities in the region, was created to provide electricity to underserved areas of rural Appalachia that for-profit companies would not dare touch, and hence serves relatively few consumers. Today, though, AEC is making decisions that set it apart.

Seventy-five years after being established, the co-op is launching a community solar program, conducting a feasibility study for fiber optic internet and leading the way forward for rural energy efficiency programs in Tennessee. In other words, this engaged co-op is proving that East Tennessee has what it takes to be an energy leader in Appalachia.

The solar project is partially funded by one of two grants Tennessee Valley Authority recently awarded for community solar development. AEC will use almost 9,500 photovoltaic panels to produce 1.4 megawatts of electricity — enough to power an estimated 115 homes for a year. So, despite the fact that many of the co-op’s members face socioeconomic challenges, they, too, can participate in the clean energy revolution thanks to AEC’s leadership and upfront investment.

As AEC general manager Greg Williams was quoted as saying in the Jefferson Post:

“Our ‘Co-op Community Solar’ program will make it possible for our residential and commercial members to reap all the benefits of solar generation—including both cost-effectiveness and environmental sustainability—without having to hassle with the challenges involved with installing photovoltaic panels and the ongoing maintenance costs required to keep them performing at maximum capacity. It’s also a powerful feeling to be a part of something with positive environmental impacts that extend much farther than those of any single individual.”

AEC is also providing free energy audits and developing new energy efficiency programs to help its members improve the safety and comfort of their homes while reducing their electric bills. This is especially important for residents in the co-op’s service area, where the average poverty rate is 19.3 percent and the median household income is 30 percent lower than the US average.

Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil (third from right) meets with representatives from AEC and others to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil (third from right) meets with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative and other stakeholders to discuss the creation of an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices has been focusing on energy efficiency as a first step to ready the region for a new energy economy. The Southeast has 29 percent of the nation’s energy efficiency potential — energy we’re paying for that’s being wasted. Our Energy Savings Program seeks to encourage co-ops to provide upfront financing for customers to do weatherization and other energy efficiency improvements, so they can start reducing energy costs right away while repaying the financing on their monthly bill through those savings.

AEC recently marked its 75th year of service, with more than 1,000 members attending it’s annual meeting celebration. When is the last time you partied down with your utility? As the co-op says in its membership materials, “ … the Co-op is neighbors helping neighbors; at AEC, you’re not just a utility customer, you’re a member owner.”

The Southeast has almost half of the electric cooperatives in the nation, many of which are providing the best kind of power – people power!

Learn about Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

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Vaughn’s Diesel

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by interns

Brewing Biofuel On the Farm

By Julia Lindsay

Dean Vaughn's diesel trucks — plus his farm equipment and several past vehicles — are all powered by his homemade biodiesel. Photo by Dean Vaughn

Dean Vaughn’s diesel trucks — plus his farm equipment and several past vehicles — are all powered by his homemade biodiesel. Photo by Dean Vaughn

Dean Vaughn is the picture of the Appalachian self-made man. He works at a factory and farms his land in Tennessee. And he also built and runs his very own biodiesel fuel processor.

Biodiesel is a renewable alternative to petroleum-based fuels. Made from corn or soybean oil as well as used cooking oil or animal fats, this degradable biofuel will run in most diesel-powered engines without any modification to the vehicle. Unleaded fuel cars with rubber fuel lines, typically those manufactured prior to 1993, can convert to using biodiesel by replacing their fuel lines with modern synthetic lines.

Vaughn uses his biodiesel for his farm equipment and trucks, and used to have a diesel Jetta and Mercedes that ran on his fuel. He began making his own fuel at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. He calculates his finished product to cost about 75 cents a gallon, – upwards of three dollars less than the sky-high gas prices at the time. Though saving money played a role in why he started making fuel, he adds, “I got a kick out of making something usable out of trash.”

Recycled cooking oil is the main ingredient, making Vaughn’s method of production more sustainable than other biodiesel methods. When mass producers plant corn in industrial agricultural farms for use in biodiesel, for instance, they require more natural resources like land and water.

Vaughn gets his recycled oil from a local hospital cafeteria. When a cafeteria employee told him that the hospital was paying a company to haul off the waste oil, he told her “I’ll keep your oil clean and your place clean, and you don’t need to pay anybody.” Thus, a symbiotic relationship emerged.

“Brewers” of biodiesel use a process called transesterification. Like the word itself, the process is complex, but Vaughn already understood the concept from working at a chemical company. “It’s been so many years now, I kind of sleep-walk through the steps,” he says.

Vaughn uses 275-gallon storage tanks for his biodiesel supply. Photo by Dean Vaughn.

Vaughn uses 275-gallon storage tanks for his biodiesel supply. Photo by Dean Vaughn.

First, methanol is mixed with lye to make methoxide. This chemical, when combined with the waste oil at a ratio of one part methoxide to four parts oil, acts as a catalyst and separates the unneeded glycerin from what will soon be the fuel. When the mixture is heated to 120 degrees in a processor Vaughn fashioned out of an old water heater, the separation process takes about an hour and a half.

After draining the glycerin, “it kind of looks like orange juice,” Vaughn says. This cloudy appearance stems from impurities remaining in the mixture. To remove these, Vaughn runs water through misting heads, like those in the produce section at the grocery store, for six hours. The water molecules attach themselves to the impurities. In the final step, he lets the mixture circulate at 120 degrees to evaporate the water. “You can do it in one day,” he says, and voila — biodiesel.

According to the EPA, biodiesel produces 57 to 86 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the blend, than petroleum. Biodiesel also releases fewer pollutants from a car’s exhaust pipe than petroleum.

“The chemistry’s different,” he says, “but it’s like a work in progress; you have good batches and some that don’t work out as well.” He is still learning and making changes. For example, he warns, “You don’t want to use 100 percent biodiesel in the winter.” The cold weather will cause the fuel to gel, rendering a vehicle inoperable. This he learned the hard way.

The solution: blending petroleum-derived diesel and biodiesel. Most biodiesel plants produce a blend with about five to twenty percent biodiesel. In the summer, Vaughn’s vehicles run on 100 percent.

Preferring to work in the spring, Vaughn will undertake his 72 gallon-producing process several times and store the fuel in the summer. He has 550 gallons of storage capacity. “If you don’t have acreage,” he says, “it can be a bit of a headache.”

Biodiesel newcomers lacking the space to produce on their own shouldn’t look to Vaughn to purchase some, however. “I’ve never been interested in the liability,” he says. “It’s just me. What I do. My thing.”

For more information on how to make biodiesel, visit

A Tennessee Homecoming

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by interns

Amy Kelly (center) with husband Lyle and daughter Aidia.

Amy Kelly (center) with husband Lyle and daughter Aidia.

Earlier this fall, Appalachian Voices’ Amy Kelly completed her move to Knoxville, Tenn., effectively reopening our office — and our program to bring energy efficiency to the Volunteer State. The move was a homecoming in more than one way, as Amy’s family has lived in Tennessee since before it was a state, and before mountaintop removal coal mining scarred the landscape she calls home.

As Tennessee Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator, Amy will be working with communities served by rural electric cooperatives to institute a program that will help residents — including low-income families — complete energy efficiency upgrades to their homes. The initiative can help residents save up to 40 percent on their electric bills, make their homes more healthy and comfortable, help grow local economies and reduce our region’s reliance on burning carbon-emitting coal for electricity.

For more information and to find out how to get involved with Amy’s work, visit

Rails To Trails

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by interns

Former Railways Find Second Calling as Bicycle Paths

By Joe Tennis
All over the Appalachians, railroads were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a means to move coal, timber and people. More than a century later, with expansion of highways and a change in industries, many of those railroads have since been abandoned.

Now, from the Virginias to the Carolinas, old rails have turned to trails. What were once rail lines have become paths for hiking, biking and even horseback riding. Such projects range from the 34-mile downhill grade of the Virginia Creeper Trail to the river-hugging path of the New River Trail State Park, spanning 57 miles, to the relatively flat 78 miles of the Greenbrier River Trail in West Virginia.

Each rail-turned-to-trail has a tale to tell. Here are three, including some that are new and maybe lesser-known:

VIRGINIA: Chessie Nature Trail, 7 miles

Chessie Nature Trail, photo by Joe Tennis

Chessie Nature Trail, photo by Joe Tennis

Chessie Nature Trail follows a path along the Maury River that has been fractured by floods. Its bridges have been broken. Still, the Chessie, which connects Lexington to Buena Vista, remains a remarkable riverside ramble — with chiseled rock walls and scenic views.

Spanning about seven miles, this gravel and dirt path offers a mix of open and forested scenes. Look along the Maury River for the remains of locks and dams. Also see railroad markers, like a “W” (a signal for the engineer to blow the train whistle) that stands along the trail amid cows in a field.

As early as 1860, this line began as a towpath for boats — using the power of mules and horses — at a canal along the North River, which was renamed Maury River in 1945. That towpath was abandoned due to flooding, but a railroad was built in its place in 1881, connecting Lexington to the Balcony Falls on the James River.

That railroad ultimately became part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Trouble was, floods continued along the river. Hurricane Camille damaged the line so extensively in 1969 that the railroad to Lexington was abandoned.

In 1978, the Nature Conservancy acquired the railroad grade. Later, the rail became a trail overseen by the VMI Foundation initially, in 1979, and later by Virginia Military Institute in 2009.

Originally only open to foot traffic, bicyclists are now also welcome, even though the Buena Vista portion of the trail remains a tough trek when encountering cattle gates.

On the north, the trail begins near Mill Creek just off Old Buena Vista Road, east of U.S. 11. Originally, the trail connected to what is locally called “VMI Island,” but a flood wiped out a footbridge. Later, Hurricane Isabel slammed the South River crossing in 2003, about halfway between Lexington and Buena Vista, which forced trail-users to use an on-road detour on Stuartsburg Road.

KENTUCKY: Dawkins Line Rail Trail, 18 miles

Autumn colors emerge along this bike-friendly wooden bridge. Photo courtesy of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail

Autumn colors emerge along this bike-friendly wooden bridge. Photo courtesy of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail

At 18 miles long, the Dawkins Line Rail Trail ranks as the longest rail-to-trail conversion in Kentucky. It’s also an affiliate of the state park system.

“We own anywhere from 30 to 60 feet from center of the trail,” says Ron Vanover, assistant director of interpretations and program services at Kentucky State Parks.

The first section of the trail opened in 2013, offering a passage for bikers, hikers and horseback riders from Hagerhill in Johnson County to Royalton in Magoffin County. Along the way, the passage travels over a couple dozen trestles and passes through the 662-foot-long Gun Creek Tunnel.

Rail-Trail Roundup

Dozens of rail-trails are scattered across central Appalachia. For more information about these and other trails in the region, visit — Compiled by Elizabeth E. Payne

Allegheny-Highlands Trail: 24.5 miles

Randolph, Tucker Counties, W.Va. Scenic mountain views. Biking, horse riding, hiking, skiing. Visit

Brevard Bike Path: 5 miles

Transylvania County, N.C. Flat trail along Carr Lumber Company rail line. Biking and hiking. Visit

Kingsport Greenbelt: 8 miles

Sullivan County, Tenn. Civil War sites and historic landmarks. Biking and hiking. Visit
UPDATE: Kingsport Greenbelt is not a rail-trail. We regret the error.

New River Trail State Park: 57 miles

Carroll, Grayson, Pulaski and Wythe Counties, Va. Follow the nation’s oldest river. Biking, horse riding, hiking, skiing. Visit

North Bend Rail Trail: 72 miles

Doddridge, Harrison, Ritchie and Wood Counties, W.Va. See tunnels from 1850s belonging to original line. Biking, horse riding, hiking, skiing. Visit

Railroad Grade Road:10.8 miles

Ashe County, N.C. Popular with bikers, shared with slow-moving traffic. Biking and hiking. Visit

Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail: 34 miles

Grayson and Washington Counties, Va. Varied landscapes and beautiful views. Biking, horse riding, hiking, skiing. Visit

Now, work continues on expanding the trail. Nearly nine more miles are expected to be open by the end of 2015 while another nine miles will remain under construction in 2016, passing into Breathitt County and through the 1,556-foot-long “Tip Top” Tunnel, Vanover says.

The trail takes its name from the Dawkins Lumber Company, which developed a railroad in the early 1900s to haul timber. The line was silenced to rail traffic in 2004. Next came plans to turn the rail into a trail — with the encouragement of the Kentucky General Assembly, which approved start-up funds for the project.

Today, you can view elk from this trail as it cuts through the rugged mountains of the Bluegrass State. The Dawkins Line Rail Trail can be accessed from a handful of sites, including Jenny’s Branch. To get there from Pikeville, Ky., follow U.S. 23 north for 34 miles. Turn right toward KY-825, then turn left onto KY-825 to reach the trail access area.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Swamp Rabbit Trail, 20 miles

Swamp Rabbit Trail, photo by Joe Tennis.

Swamp Rabbit Trail, photo by Joe Tennis.

Today, what was once a railroad cutting through Greenville has been replaced by what is formally called the “Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail.” This multi-use greenway system for bicycles and foot traffic runs along the Reedy River and overlooks the giant waterfall on the river at the center of the city. It also connects Greenville County with schools, parks and local businesses.

As early as 1889, a group of businessmen gathered to create a new venture called the Carolina, Knoxville and Western Railway. Their purpose? Connect Greenville, S.C., with the ports on the Atlantic coast, as well as Tennessee.

Passengers, however, came up with a new name, calling this railroad the “Swamp Rabbit” — a moniker given, it’s believed, from the wetlands along the Reedy River and the bouncy nature of riding these rails.

For about a century, the railroad changed hands — and names — quite frequently. Then the line was abandoned in 1998 and the property acquired by Upstate Forever, a nonprofit group. Greenville County Economic Development Corporation later stepped in as plans evolved, building a trail from the old rail line. Volunteers also hopped aboard, working to remove vegetation and clear the path for a trail.

The ever-expanding trail between Greenville and Travelers Rest spans nearly 20 miles and has about 500,000 annual users.

“It kind of gives you the option to exercise and …see the entire city,” says 29-year-old Eric Helms, a frequent trail user and a restaurant manager in Greenville. “It’s a long trail, and you can … drop off the trail and stop and see the Reedy River.”

Parking is available at several sites, including the corner of Grandview Road and Main Street in Travelers Rest and at Furman University, Mayberry Park and Cleveland Park in Greenville.

TENNESSEE: Tweetsie Trail, 9.5 miles

Tweetsie Trail, photo by Joe Tennis.

Tweetsie Trail, photo by Joe Tennis.

Open since 2014, the Tweetsie Trail in eastern Tennessee links Johnson City, the home of East Tennessee State University, to Elizabethton. Bikers and walkers can access the seven-mile-long trail from a Johnson City parking area at the intersection of Legion and Alabama streets. From here, the trail rolls downhill — first passing big rock cuts and then, almost immediately, crossing high above Sinking Creek. Within the first half-mile, the trail crosses over U.S. Highway 321 on a bridge that includes a fenced canopy.

Cruising into Carter County, the trail passes a mix of woods, fields, businesses and residences. It slips past Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area before concluding in Elizabethton near the Betsytowne Shopping Center.

This route was once known as the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, using the initials “ET&WNC,” which connected Johnson City to Boone, N.C.

Folks invented at least a couple of nicknames, with some claiming those initials should really stand for “Eat Taters and Wear No Clothes.” Others, meanwhile, called this “Tweetsie,” saying that’s what the locomotive whistles seemed to say as they blew and echoed in the rocky mountain corridor along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Trains stopped running on the rail line between Johnson City and Elizabethton in 2003. About four years later, the dreams and visions of civic leaders and a nonprofit group, Friends of the Tweetsie Trail, began to turn the trail into a reality – thanks to monetary donations by individuals, businesses and local governments.


Cancer Risks from Nuclear Too Expensive To Study

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that it has canceled a pilot study of the cancer risks associated with living near seven nuclear sites across the country due to budgetary constraints and lack of need. Facilities are monitored and any releases of radiation “are too small to cause observable increases in cancer risk near the facilities,” the agency stated.

But residents living near one of the sites, Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tenn., are concerned, particularly because details surrounding a uranium spill in 2006 were withheld from the public.

Uranium contamination was found downstream from the plant in 2010, and as Barbara O’Neal, a member of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network, told Public News Service, “The thing with nuclear material is it never goes away.”
— By Elizabeth E. Payne