Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee’

Be cool and keep fighting

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - posted by thom
After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have a hard time turning on the TV or going online without seeing reactions to the midterm elections. Most pundits will analyze what happened, and some will try to tell you what it means.

Here’s what it really means: maybe not that much.

To put things in historical perspective, let’s take a moment to look back at some very recent elections and their outcomes.

2008: Democrats take the White House and a supermajority in both the House and Senate! They proceed to pass climate legislation, stop mountaintop removal coal mining, usher in a new age of clean energy take a few moderate steps toward reducing the amount of permits issued for mountaintop removal coal mining.

2010: Republican wave! The GOP takes the House by a wide margin and nearly takes the Senate. They proceed to remove EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and then expedite all mountaintop removal permits create a fuss while federal agencies continue to take moderate steps towards limiting coal pollution.

2012: Democrats keep the White House, and improve their numbers in both the House and Senate! They proceed to make permanent changes to coal mining and coal ash regulations while stopping global warming in its tracks make no headway on coal mining regulations, allow mountaintop removal mines to be permitted, and take only moderate steps on coal ash regulation and carbon emissions.

We don’t know what the future holds, but considering what happened yesterday there are a few things that we can be pretty sure of moving forward.

The politics of Virginia and Tennessee are not much different today than they were yesterday. No major incumbent lost their race, and the election’s outcomes gives us no reason to believe federal office holders from either state will change their behavior going forward. Appalachian Voices, for one, is happy to continue to work with members from both states and both parties.

West Virginia and Kentucky are still in Big Coal’s stranglehold. But like coal itself, the industry’s power is finite. We can’t say how soon the politics of coal will change in Central Appalachia, but we will continue to work with our allies in those states to change the conversation. For now, members of the two states’ delegations will continue to vote the way they have for years.

After 30 years as an advocate for coal miners and the coal industry alike, Rep. Nick Rahall lost to his Republican challenger, Evan Jenkins, in the race for West Virginia’s 3rd district. Rahall was the senior Democratic member and had a firm grasp on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. His replacement in that role will likely be someone who opposes mountaintop removal coal mining. For that, we can be all be happy.

North Carolina’s Senate election was a bit of a surprise. Though, aside from Democrat Kay Hagan being replaced by Thom Tillis, the rest of delegation is unchanged.

Appalachian Voices has worked hard to build relationships with members of Congress and their staffs in both the House and the Senate. But we have known for a long time that getting comprehensive legislation through Congress is not a good short-term goal.

The White House, on the other hand, is armed with the science and has the legal authority and moral obligation to take on mountaintop removal, coal ash pollution, climate change and other threats. President Obama was never going to be able to rely on Congress to act on those issues. So from that perspective, nothing has changed.

It’s okay to be excited about a candidate you like winning an election. It’s okay to be bummed when a candidate you like loses. But it’s not okay to get so caught up in it all that you forget the big picture.

As we see it, the job before us has not changed. Our responsibilities to Appalachia, and yours, are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

We will keep fighting for a better future for Appalachia, and push every decision-maker, regardless of their political leanings, to stand with us. We will fight to end to mountaintop removal and for a just economic transition away from fossil fuels. We will fight because no one else is going to do it for us, and we will need you there by our side.

Getting Wild: The Tennessee Wilderness Proposal

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Chris Samoray

My pulse thumps and I breathe harder. At a furious pace, I forge uphill quicker than the river beside me rolls down the mountainside. Grasses reclaiming the path swipe my ankles. Insects buzz near my open ears, which strain to hear the slightest sound — a crack in the trees or a rattle in the dirt. I’m alone and out of my element, but with each foot forward, concerns fade.

On this particular day, I’m tromping along the Brookshire Creek Trail, a 6.7-mile stretch in the Cherokee National Forest’s Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area. Although the Upper Bald site hasn’t yet received wilderness designation, it certainly feels wild. My three stops to ask for directions and the five miles of winding, up-and-down dirt road to an unmarked trailhead located in the “east corner of the parking area” can attest to that. Or maybe I’m just in need of a lesson in confident map-reading.

The Bald River pours over an unnamed waterfall that shelters a shallow swimming hole in the Upper Bald Wilderness Study Area. The Upper Bald is one of six areas included in the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which would designate more wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest. Photo by Chris Samoray.

The Bald River pours over an unnamed waterfall that shelters a shallow swimming hole in the Upper Bald Wilderness Study Area. The Upper Bald is one of six areas included in the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which would designate more wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest. Photo by Chris Samoray.

Either way, I’m drawn to the Upper Bald by nature’s lure. And it’s this attraction that has hooked the Upper Bald as a candidate for official wilderness designation in the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

A Guide to the Wild

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
- Wilderness Act of 1964

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and to date, the nation’s wilderness system includes 758 areas that cover nearly 110 million acres in all but six states. Wilderness areas are managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and are designated within existing federal public land. While wilderness areas are similar to national parks and forests, in many ways, they’re governed with more regulations.

Activities such as logging, mining and livestock grazing are allowed in national forests but are strictly prohibited in wilderness areas. And unlike national parks, once an area receives wilderness designation, new roads generally can’t be built.

“Wilderness designation is the ultimate level of protection for an area,” says Laura Hodge, who works for wilderness organizations Tennessee Wild and Wild South.

This doesn’t mean that wilderness areas are less open to the public though. While the main goal of a designated wilderness area is to keep it wild, visitation is encouraged. Traditional forms of outdoor activity such as hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting and fishing as well as other non-mechanized recreation, such as rafting and skiing, are all welcomed in wilderness areas.

“There are no areas that keep people out,” says Hodge. “This is public land. People are welcome everywhere.”

What’s forbidden in wilderness areas is machinery. Even using weed eaters and chainsaws to maintain trails is off-limits — crosscut saws and other hand tools are the preferred methods of trail maintenance.

Ultimately, wilderness areas aim to provide a safe haven free of alteration from human impact. Each chunk of land set aside helps preserve clean air and water and wildlife habitat and, in doing so, ensures that future generations will have the opportunity to explore pristine places like the Brookshire Creek Trail.

Although Brookshire is 6.7 miles one way, my hike stretches only five miles, both ways. I plan to turn around at a cascading unnamed waterfall along the Bald River, about 2.5 miles in.

Almost immediately after setting out on the trail, the path runs into a small stream that empties into the nearby Bald River. Opting not to sacrifice dry boots, I dance over a few stones to reach the other side just a few feet away.

From there, the narrow trail follows the tumbling Bald River up the mountainside, occasionally recruiting me for more small river crossings. The uphill trudge is slight, and a heavy canopy shades the path. But I’m following water, and water means insects. In August, bugs ruled supreme.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act

The Tennessee Wilderness Act, first introduced in 2010 by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and later co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), would add nearly 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest as official designated wilderness. With slightly more than 9,000 acres, the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area is the largest of the six tracts included in the proposal, and the only one that does not currently have any designated wilderness.

Photo by Chris Samoray

A stream crosses the Brookshire Creek trailhead. Photo by Chris Samoray.

The Upper Bald is also adjacent to the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and the two combined cover much of the Bald River Watershed. If passed, the Tennessee Wilderness Act would safeguard nearly the entire watershed, helping to protect four of the area’s threatened or endangered aquatic species, including the Citico darter and smoky madtom fish, as well as native brook trout. In the eastern United States, Hodge says, this extent of watershed protection is rare because of population density and land availability.

The bill would designate Tennessee’s first new wilderness in nearly 30 years, but the state’s three-decade lull hasn’t been for lack of trying.

In the past five years, the Tennessee Wilderness Act was introduced two other times, and despite a survey given by Tennessee Wild showing broad support, the bill was thwarted by an adjourning Congress on both occasions. Similar to previous introductions, the 2013 introduction awaits a floor vote.

In the meantime, people appear eager to satiate their outdoor appetite. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Americans currently spend $646 billion on outdoor recreation annually, and the industry fuels 6.1 million American livelihoods. In Tennessee, outdoor recreation provides 83,000 jobs and generates $8.2 billion in consumer spending. In neighboring North Carolina, the numbers are more than double at 192,000 and $19.2 billion. Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia closely follow in North Carolina’s footsteps.

“Wilderness does not prevent jobs, it creates jobs, particularly in southern Appalachia,” Hodge says. “Think of the visitors who go to the Smokies. It shows the public has an interest. If we don’t protect these areas, they’ll be gone.”

Communities bordering proposed wilderness areas of the Tennessee Wilderness Act seem to support outdoor recreation, too. Tellico Plains, which is near the Upper Bald area in Tennessee, recently rebranded itself “The Little Town with the Big Back Yard,” and in August, the mountainside community earned “Trail Town” recognition from the Benton MacKaye Trail Association and the Southeastern Foot Trails Coalition.

A Wilder World

Back on the Brookshire Trail, the charm of falling water scatters insects and breaks my daydream. Down a steep embankment to the left is the unnamed waterfall.

I scramble down a small water runoff path and lose the boots and socks. Stepping carefully to the river’s center, I aim to lounge on moss-covered rocks bathed in river mist and tree shadows for an afternoon picnic. A chilly plunge into the swimming hole at the base of the waterfall washes down my meal.

Just beyond the waterfall, the trail meets the lower waters of Brookshire Creek and then joins with the Benton MacKaye Trail, only deviating from MacKaye for a short distance when Brookshire goes up to its terminus at Beaverdam Bald, a small open area at 4,260 feet with mountainous views into North Carolina.

If the Tennessee Wilderness Act passes, the amount of wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest will increase from 66,000 acres to more than 80,000 acres, about 12 percent of the forest. But Hodge notes that this lingers below the national average of 14 percent. Still, the additional acreage would provide increased protection for wildlife in a region that’s among the country’s most biodiverse. And not only would nature reap the benefits, but so too would we.

Nature gives us a chance to revisit our roots, and by the time I begin my return trek, I feel rooted in the forest. I walk slowly, allowing the running water and fresh air to recharge my being for just a little longer. Without the aid of modern tools though, I’ve lost the ability to survive here for long. I’m a visitor only, and must return to civilization. But for a brief moment, I’m welcomed in a prehistoric home: the wild.

Energy Savings Advances in Tennessee and North Carolina

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

Our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign has made great strides since our kickoff 18 months ago, but we’re only just getting started!

This September in Tennessee, Appalachian Voices participated in an energy efficiency “retreat” that brought the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and six of its member cooperatives together with a number of state agencies and numerous experts in energy efficiency finance. The purpose was to begin designing a statewide on-bill energy efficiency finance program that will help low-income residents reduce their electricity bills. Appalachian Voices not only helped make the retreat happen, we are also playing a key role in determining how the program will be funded and implemented.

While we are energized by Tennessee’s progress, North Carolina’s electric co-ops have yet to commit to providing energy efficiency finance options. Because of this, on October 9 we launched a new campaign focused on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. in the High Country of western North Carolina. Our goal is to generate strong member support to encourage the electric co-op to develop an on-bill energy efficiency financing program, one that primarily helps low-income households.

The poverty rate among Blue Ridge Electric members is 23%, meaning that many households in the High Country struggle to pay their electricity bills each winter. As one of North Carolina’s largest electric co-ops, however, Blue Ridge Electric should be offering financial support that helps reduce their members’ electricity bills. Six other co-ops in North Carolina offer on-bill finance options, and it is time that Blue Ridge Electric step up and do the same. To support the campaign, we are also launching a High Country Home Energy Makeover contest. See page 6 for more information.

To learn more or get involved, call (828) 262-1500 or email Rory McIlmoil at

Appalachian Voices Hosts Wild & Scenic Film Festival in Knoxville

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

Join us on Thursday, Oct. 30 at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tenn., for a night of exciting short films from one of the nation’s premiere environmental and adventure film festivals. This special selection of award-winning films about nature, community activism, adventure and conservation are guaranteed to inspire and ignite the audience to protect our wildlife and natural places.

Thanks to our sponsors, Three Rivers Market and Mast General Store, proceeds will go directly to support the work of Appalachian Voices. The show starts at 7 p.m. and tickets are $10 in advance and at the door. The event also includes raffles, membership specials and giveaways. For ticket info and the film lineup, visit

Energy efficiency at the forefront of cooperative principles in Tennessee

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014 - posted by rory
Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA's Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA’s Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Rural electric cooperatives, which serve millions of families across Appalachia, operate on seven principles, the most important of which (at least to us) is principle number seven: “Concern for Community.”

The seventh principle commits electric co-ops to “the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.” As we described in a blog series on the need for and benefits on “on-bill” financing programs supporting home energy improvements in Appalachia, the sustainable development of the Appalachian region relies on the ability of residents to invest in their communities. But first and foremost, they must be able to afford their electric bills. The clear first step to achieving this vision is expanding energy efficiency, and this is something that Tennessee’s electric cooperatives have taken to heart.

On September 5, thanks to a generous grant from the National Governor’s Association (NGA), the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA), in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), sponsored a statewide energy efficiency “retreat.” The goal of the day-long policy retreat was to hash through the details of what will hopefully become a statewide program to finance home energy efficiency improvements, especially for low-income residents. Such programs have proven to reduce home energy costs substantially, and are primarily intended to help families that can’t afford to pay for the upfront cost of needed improvements. Below is a testimonial from one family that participated in South Carolina’s pilot on-bill financing program known as “Help My House.”

The retreat featured a number of experts in energy efficiency finance and program design as well as co-op and government administration, including numerous representatives from federal organizations and government agencies, Tennessee state government agencies and various experts and clean energy advocates such as Appalachian Voices and a handful of our partner organizations.

Most importantly, the retreat was attended by six of Tennessee’s rural electric cooperatives. Included among them was Appalachian Electric, which has proven to be a statewide leader in expanding energy efficiency opportunities not only for their own members, but for all of Tennessee’s rural co-op members. Unfortunately, of the six co-ops that participated in the retreat only two co-ops were from the Appalachian region, although we were told by TECA that a handful of others couldn’t attend but were interested in participating in the process. We hope that more co-ops with service territories in East Tennessee will sign on to the process, because as the energy cost maps we generated earlier this year show, members of Appalachian co-ops are most in need of support for reducing their electric bills.

The efforts of Appalachian Voices’ staff, through concerted outreach to Tennessee’s Appalachian electric co-ops and local stakeholders, played a key part in making the energy efficiency retreat happen, and as a result we were invited to participate as an expert stakeholder. We are extremely encouraged by the outstanding leadership that NGA, TECA, TDEC and Appalachian Electric are showing, and we admire their dedication to helping the families who need it most.

The prospect of a statewide on-bill financing program in Tennessee is exciting, and we remain committed to doing everything we can to seeing it through. Further, we appreciate everything you do to support our work. If you live in western North Carolina, get in touch, because we have a lot going on in your neighborhood too!

Exploring Mountain Bogs

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Amber Ellis

If you take one of The Nature Conservancy’s monthly hikes through Bluff Mountain Preserve in Ashe County, N.C., you’ll experience a rare mountain fen firsthand. Walking along the trail, the trees suddenly give way to a clearing closely resembling a meadow of grasses and flowers. Meadows are rarely found at 4,500 feet elevation, however, and do not typically swallow your boots in mud.

Wetlands such as bogs and fens are some of the rarest natural communities across central and southern Appalachia. Bogs are defined by their nutrient-poor, acidic and saturated soil, and are usually found in depressions or low-lying areas filled by precipitation. Mosses and shrubs thrive while mature trees are rare.

In Ashe County, N.C., the oak forests of Bluff Mountain give way to a rare mountain fen. Photographer Kim Hadley, who captured this image, began volunteering with The Nature Conservancy to help care for the area in 2004.

In Ashe County, N.C., the oak forests of Bluff Mountain give way to a rare mountain fen. Photographer Kim Hadley, who captured this image, began volunteering with The Nature Conservancy to help care for the area in 2004.

A fen is essentially a bog fed by groundwater. This makes them slightly less acidic, more nutrient-rich and home to a wider variety of grasses than bogs, accounting for the characteristic meadow-like look of fens.

Functionally, however, fens and bogs are nearly identical. Because of this similarity, high-elevation, isolated wetlands are often collectively referred to as “bogs.”

Although mountain bogs represent less than one percent of the southern Appalachian landscape, they are highly functional pockets of immense ecological and practical importance. Not only are the bogs biodiversity hotspots for rare and specially adapted species such as the mountain sweet pitcher plant and the Carolina northern flying squirrel, they also provide natural water-level controls for surrounding communities. Bogs act as buffers in times of both drought and flood, replenishing springs during dry spells and catching overflow during heavy rain.

This consistent water supply attracts critters such as the water shrew, a small mammal whose hairy hind feet allow it to run or glide across the water without getting stuck in the mud. Mountain bogs are also habitats to many game species as well as species of conservation concern. This means wildlife such as the wood duck and ruffed grouse live alongside rare plants and amphibians such as bunched arrowhead and numerous salamander species.

In North Carolina, the smallness and isolation of these mountain bogs is of particular importance in light of recently proposed wetland regulation updates from the state legislature. Although wetlands are generally protected under the federal Clean Water Act, regulation of isolated wetlands is left up to the state. The current draft legislation would increase the size required for a wetland area to trigger environmental protection. Given that mountain bogs are typically small, the proposed regulations would make them particularly vulnerable to development.

The importance of bogs has not gone unnoticed, however, and the proposed legislation makes conservation efforts all the more relevant. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began work on the Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge to protect, restore and manage the unique wildlife habitats. Promoting these goals will involve connecting people to nature and developing landscape-level conservation and conservation partnerships. The proposed refuge would ultimately include as many as 23,000 acres spread across thirty sites in western North Carolina and East Tennessee.

According to Gary Peeples, the man spearheading the proposal from the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Asheville, N.C., the refuge is a chance to “make a big step forward when it comes to bog conservation … especially in the conservation of those federally threatened and endangered plants and animals.”

Conservation areas for the project include the bog itself, the surrounding upland area, and when applicable, an area upstream. The proposal has already received federal approval and widespread support from local nonprofits and private landowners, but, Peeples says, “the biggest limiting factor right now is money to purchase land.”

A volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the population health of the elusive and endangered Appalachian mountain bog turtle. Photo courtesy of Gary Peeples of USFWS

A volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the population health of the elusive and endangered Appalachian mountain bog turtle. Photo courtesy of Gary Peeples of USFWS

This means the project will happen in pieces, with land parcels being bought as funding is approved by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Peeples points out, though, that “the bigger picture here is the conservation of the bogs,” and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also works with landowners who wish to manage and conserve their privately owned bogs apart from the National Wildlife Refuge.

Once acquired wetlands in the refuge are stable enough to allow public access, recreational activities such as hunting, birdwatching and wildlife photography will take priority. The goal is to ensure the health and survival of bog ecosystems for the sake of their inhabitants as well as for curious naturalists, eager to slog through the mud and discover one of the regions’ rarest gems.

Endangered Inhabitants of the Mountain Bogs

Bog Turtle


The mountain bogs of Southern Appalachia are one of the bog turtle’s few remaining homes. As North America’s tiniest turtles, they are prized in the pet world for their small size and distinctive coloring — particularly the bright orange patches on either side of their head.

Measuring only 3 – 4.5 inches long, bog turtles feed mainly on seeds, insect larvae, beetles and millipedes and are much more concerned with avoiding predators than being one. Though bog turtles have multiple natural predators, human impact through poaching and habitat loss are responsible for their status as a critically endangered species.

Rock Gnome Lichen


High in the fog of lofty elevations, deep in the mists of river gorges, or nestled in the dampness of mountains — these are some of the only bogs are the only places one can find the rock gnome lichen, a fungus unique to Southern Appalachia. Clustering on vertical rock faces, the blue-gray lichen gets its nutrients from water and sunlight and reproduces asexually at a very slow rate. Trampling and soil erosion from hikers and rock-climbers contribute to the rock gnome lichen’s endangered status. Habitat destruction due to invasive insects killing trees that shade the lichen is also a major cause.

Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant


Found in only a few counties along the western North Carolina/ South Carolina border, the endangered Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant is specifically adapted to the low-nutrient environment of mountain bogs. Like most plants, the Mountain Sweet has photosynthetic leaves that convert the sun’s energy into usable sugars. However, while most plants use their roots to gather additional nutrients from surrounding soil, a bog offers few freebies, so the Mountain Sweet opts for a more lively food source. Small, nectar-seeking insects are lured into the plant’s pitcher organ, an upright, leafy tube lined with hairs, and greeted with a bath of enzyme-rich digestive fluids that break down their bodies into the nutrients the plant needs. North Carolina has already claimed the Venus Fly Trap as the state’s official carnivorous plant, but the Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant stands out as a regional treasure.

Bored to Death

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Amber Ellis

Originally from eastern Russia and northeastern Asia, the emerald ash borer found its way to southeastern Michigan through infested cargo ships in 2002 and quickly became North America’s most destructive forest pest. Since then, the invasive beetle has plagued forests in 22 states, including most of Appalachia and, as of June, five more counties in East Tennessee.

The pest’s larvae bores under an ash tree’s bark, destroying the nutrient and water transport systems and starving the canopy until the entire tree dies. To contain the spread of the emerald ash borer and other invasive pests, experts urge residents and visitors to avoid transporting firewood of any kind.

New Moth Named to Honor Cherokee

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

The Cherokeea attakullakulla now boasts a name of high distinction. A researcher first described the moth in the 1950s, but it was not until this summer that a team of scientists published a report recognizing it as an unidentified species native to North Carolina and Tennessee. Once a nameless moth drifting through Appalachia, its name honors the environmental stewardship of the Cherokee Nation.

Expecting Justice: The backward priorities of a billionaire coal baron

Thursday, August 7th, 2014 - posted by brian

If spending $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is paying your debts.

One of these things is not like the other, but they're all owned by Jim Justice. Premium Coal's Zeb Mountain (top) and Windrock Mountain mines in Tennessee, and the Greenbrier's new training complex. Photos from and Facebook.

One of these things is not like the other, but they’re all owned by Jim Justice. Premium Coal’s Zeb Mountain (top) and Windrock Mountain mines in Tennessee, and the Greenbrier’s new training complex. Photos from and Facebook.

On July 25, as opponents of mountaintop removal celebrated an order that halted three companies’ surface mining operations in Tennessee, New Orleans Saints fans flocked to the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the NFL football team began training camp at a brand new $30 million facility.

At the center of both stories is Jim Justice, a billionaire West Virginia native who in recent years cut his coal losses by investing heavily in resort properties like the Greenbrier.

The Sierra Club and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment shared the news that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued 39 cessation orders against National Coal, Premium Coal and S&H Mining, each owned by Justice, for failing to report water monitoring data and meet mine reclamation requirements.

In fact, coal mines owned by Justice in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have racked up more than 250 violations, with unpaid penalties of about $2 million.

“I guess I just screwed up,” Justice said to the Roanoke Times in July about his subsidiaries’ transgressions. “I mean, we’re not a public company … The majority of this is all paperwork, and I’m cleaning it up.”

Purchased Power

Justice is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion. Forbes magazine puts him at number 292 on a list of wealthiest Americans and estimates that his personal wealth has grown by $500 million in the last year.

In some circles, he is revered for rescuing West Virginia’s historic Greenbrier Resort from bankruptcy in 2009. And even as violations against Justice-owned operations pile up, West Virginia’s lone billionaire is helping his state through troubled times.

“Sure, some have raised questions about some of Justice’s companies’ practices, late payments, regulatory fines and the like,” a July editorial in the Charleston Daily Mail postured in guarded praise. “Yet, while many talk of diversifying the state’s economy in the face of market and regulatory setbacks for the coal industry, Jim Justice and company are doing something about it.”

Photo from the Justice to Justice campaign's Facebook page.

Photo from the Justice to Justice campaign’s Facebook page.

Some folks in Kentucky feel differently, and understandably so — nearly half of the 266 violations Justice faces resulted from problems at mines in that state’s eastern counties.

Along with violations for failing to pay fines or breaking promises after previous enforcement actions, the charges in Kentucky stem from companies failing to submit water monitoring reports and failing to meet reclamation requirements. The problem has gotten so bad that some states are considering bond forfeiture, a last resort that could push the costs of proper reclamation off on the communities Justice’s companies have already put in harm’s way.

It’s not the first time his companies’ poor regulatory records have hurt their ability to do business. Outstanding violations in Virginia led to a massive victory for opponents of mountaintop removal last year when the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a permit for Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. to strip-mine Ison Rock Ridge in Wise County.

But the recent cessation order in Tennessee represents the largest action to date taken against Justice’s companies. Unlike all the other states where his operations face violations and fines, Tennessee’s mining regulatory program is handled by the federal government.

Before the cessation orders were issued, the federal Office of Surface Mining held public hearings in Anderson County, Tenn., to address Premium Coal’s failure to meet reclamation requirements at two mine sites. Premium Coal requested the orders be dropped because the crew they hired had planted trees upside down with the roots sticking up.

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to raise awareness about the dismal regulatory records and outstanding debts of Justice-owned coal companies. Photo from

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign to raise awareness about the dismal regulatory records and outstanding debts of Justice-owned coal companies. Photo from

“You’d think a coal billionaire could hire firms that can plant a tree the right way around. Sadly, Premium Coal’s reasoning for not meeting permit requirements was simply that,” said Sierra Club Organizer Bonnie Swinford in a press release. “Justice and his firms have a legal responsibility to ensure adequate reclamation of strip-mined land in our state — and upside-down trees don’t cut it.”

Add it all up, and it’s no wonder the Southwest Virgnia-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to call on the mogul to use his power to diversify Appalachia’s economy and put an end to mountaintop removal. In early July, SAMS members marched outside the Greenbrier and the towns of White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg, W.Va., holding signs with messages such as “You got rich, we got sick,” “Employ local people in reclamation,” and “Hey Jim Justice, be a good neighbor to ALL of Appalachia.”

According to the Justice to Justice website, many tourists and even local residents had no idea that the Greenbrier patriarch’s fortune had been built in part “on the backs of blasted mountains and abandoned communities.”

Courting the Saints

Sadly, media coverage of Justice’s latest major investment has obscured everything mentioned so far in this post. A USA Today story about the new facility built for the New Orleans Saints praised a genial, sports-loving Justice, calling him a “refreshingly grounded billionaire.” Justice was proud to share the amount he spent to see the Saints come to the Greenbrier.

“This is on me — I spent $30 million of my own money,” Justice told USA Today. “The Saints are paying for their rooms and their meals. Basically, that’s it. The Saints didn’t put money in this deal.”

The facility, which has variously been described as “posh,” “lavish,” and “state-of-the-art,” was built in about 100 days. You can watch the video at right from the Charleston Daily Mail’s YouTube account for a look inside.

“It’s unbelievable when you think about it,” Justice told reporters gathered in the locker room. “This is, gosh, I’m trying to think, a little over 90 days in the doing, and with a whole lot of earth-moving, it had to be done before that.”

Yes, it is unbelievable, and exceedingly hard to not just conclude that Justice sees himself as being above the law. If dropping $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is abiding by surface mining laws and properly reclaiming mines — trees planted root-side down and all.

Justice says the demands of his critics, who he calls “anti-mining activists,” are unrealistic. But considering the circumstances, a regional movement calling on his companies to clean up their mess, pay off their debts and stop poisoning water is not only realistic, it’s unavoidable. Justice practically created it. To do right by Appalachia, he should meet those demands and then some. And he could start by responding to the open letter and request for a meeting the Justice to Justice campaign sent him months ago.

Back at the Greenbrier, likely in a dining room every bit as lavish as the new sports complex, Saints’ Coach Sean Payton and Justice had dinner together the night before training camp started. At one point, according to USA Today, Payton told Justice, “You exceeded expectations.”

Given the same chance, someone from Central Appalachia expecting justice — whether an out-of-work miner, a contractor waiting to be paid, a fed up environmental regulator or a mother concerned about the poorly reclaimed mine looming over her community — might all say the opposite: “Not even close.”

Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment and Coal River Mountain Watch recently signed on to Justice to Justice campaign. Learn more here and by liking the campaign’s Facebook page.

The Power of Energy Efficiency — Building a Stronger Economy for Appalachia (Part 4)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 - posted by rory

{ Editor’s Note } This is the fourth installment in a five-part series illustrating the need for greater investments in residential energy efficiency as an economic driver in rural Appalachia.

Part 4: Closing Arguments — Why Rural Electric Cooperatives Should Provide Financial Support for Home Energy Efficiency Improvements

I love my electric utility. In fact, as I write, I am wearing a hat they gave me.

Mountain Electric is a small electric co-op serving just over 30,000 members in the rural mountains of East Tennessee. They have a small staff, but are always willing to help out if I have a question or problem. They also seem to sincerely care about the people they serve, and work hard to address member concerns. One way they do this is by helping to reduce members’ electricity bills through energy efficiency incentives and limited financing programs.

I also love Mountain Electric because they are part of a team of co-ops exploring the development of a small-scale on-bill financing program for home energy efficiency in Tennessee. Even more, I admire the co-op model and their potential for doing good in the communities they serve, and I have developed a good relationship with my co-op, as all members should. That’s why I wear the hat.

The Rural Electric Cooperative: History and Mission

I didn’t always know much about electric co-ops, and most people who aren’t a member of one — and even many who are — don’t know much about them either.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, as late as the mid-1930s approximately 90 percent of all rural homes in America were without electricity. This was due to the fact that the large power companies did not think it was cost-effective to run thousands of miles of transmission lines to areas with low population density.

With the signing of an Executive Order by President Franklin Roosevelt establishing the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, and the subsequent passage of the Rural Electrification Act the following year, a lending program was put in place that supported the creation of rural electric co-ops, and everything began to change. By 1953, more than 90 percent of farms across the nation had electricity, and today, more than 900 co-ops provide electricity to more than 42 million people.

[Notes: For those interested, NRECA has put together a neat map showing the growth in the number of co-ops over time. Also, REA is now the Rural Utilities Service, or RUS, and is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.]

[Notes: For those interested, NRECA has put together a neat map showing the growth in the number of co-ops over time. Also, REA is now the Rural Utilities Service, or RUS, and is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.]

What distinguishes co-ops from investor-owned utilities is that they are non-profit entities owned by the utility’s electricity customers. Every “member” owns a share of the co-op, and, at least in theory, has a direct voice in decisions made by the co-op. In addition, unlike large profit-driven utilities, co-ops operate according to the Seven Cooperative Principles, which include a voluntary and open membership, democratic governance by members, economic participation, autonomy and independence, cooperation among cooperatives and concern for community.

Why Co-ops Should Provide Home Energy Efficiency Loans

The seventh principle, that of concern for community, is described by NRECA as “working for the sustainable development of communities through policies accepted by [the] members.” This principle speaks directly to the mission of Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program, which is to work with electric co-ops in Appalachia to alleviate poverty and generate new jobs through the creation of comprehensive home energy efficiency loan programs known as “on-bill finance.” With on-bill finance, the electric utility provides a “loan” to a customer to make a variety of home energy efficiency improvements such as weatherization, insulation and new energy efficient heating and cooling systems. After the improvements have been made, the customer repays the loan through an extra charge on their electric bill. The intent of these finance programs is for the annual savings to exceed the loan payments, thereby resulting in a net reduction in their electric bills.

On-bill financing supports the concept of sustainable development by reducing energy costs for community residents (thereby alleviating poverty), and supporting the development of a local energy services industry, potentially creating hundreds of long-lasting jobs (e.g. energy auditors, home appliance contractors, retailers, etc) while helping to diversify and strengthen local economies. In addition, the widespread adoption of such programs would result in cleaner air and water and therefore healthier communities.

Many co-ops across the Southeast already provide some sort of financial support or incentives, such as rebates and credits on electric bills, for their members to invest in energy efficiency (does yours?). However, most of the cost of the improvements still have to be paid upfront by the member. Currently only five co-ops in Appalachia–all located in Kentucky–provide financing for their members to make multiple efficiency improvements all at once.


Barriers to Implementation, and Resources Available to Co-ops

One thing to recognize is that many co-ops face significant barriers to developing and implementing energy efficiency programs of any kind, much less full on-bill finance programs. First of all, like my co-op, a lot of co-ops have limited staff, and it takes a significant amount of staff time to put these programs together and have them be effective.

Secondly, it takes money, something which most co-ops also do not have because their cost of generating or obtaining electricity and distributing it to their members is on the rise. Further, co-ops have to pay for constructing and maintaining the distribution system (transmission lines, transformers, etc). In addition, most co-ops are still paying off debts associated with loans received to cover past expenses.

Finally, in a lot of areas, the lack of an energy services industry (energy auditors, retrofitters, retailers) means that contractors would have to be identified and certified before an on-bill finance program can be implemented. Each of these factors may pose a significant challenge for a co-op interested in developing a financing program. However, there are a growing number of resources available that can help.

For starters, the USDA now has two (and potentially three) funding programs that co-ops can access in order to fund an on-bill finance program. The two existing programs are the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, and the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program. While the requirements and details associated with these two programs are much different, they both provide a significant amount of funding that co-ops can use to fund the program. Another similar initiative known as the Rural Energy Savings Program may become available by as early as 2015, and would provide zero interest loans to co-ops specifically for the purpose of developing an on-bill financing program.

In addition, there are many different models that exist all across the country that co-ops can reference in designing their own program (we wrote about two of them in our last post), and the USDA and others are in the process of developing toolkits and model program designs to help co-ops put a workable and effective program together. Growing interest is also leading many government and nonprofit entities to offer funding and other support for these programs. One such leader is the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, which offers a variety of financial assistance for energy efficiency programs. Appalachian Voices has also been supporting and partnering with co-ops in our region who are taking steps toward developing an on-bill finance program.

What YOU can do to promote more energy efficiency support through your electric co-op

While there is wealth of resources available to help co-ops navigate the process of designing, developing and implementing an on-bill financing program, the availability of these resources will itself not move a co-op to develop a program. If you are a co-op member, that responsibility lies with you.

Find out whether your co-op offers an on-bill finance program by visiting our Energy Savings Action Center, and if they don’t, then send a letter requesting that they develop one. Also, get out in your community and talk with your neighbors about how stronger energy efficiency investments can help strengthen your local economy and provide financial relief and greater comfort for those who need it.

Finally, get to know the people that manage your co-op. Call them up, stop in their office, invite them to a barbeque. You will find that they are good folks that care about you and your neighbors, and are willing to explore ways that they can do more to help all of their members. That is concern for community, and it’s the foundation of creating healthy, sustainable economies in Appalachia and elsewhere.