Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee’

Energy bill acrobatics

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016 - posted by Lou Murrey

Balancing the Family Budget with High Electric Bills

Click the arrows to scroll through the slide show. The Schmidts of Tazewell, Tenn. have to keep their home carefully temperature controlled for the health of their son, C.J., who has Down syndrome.

For the Schmidt family of Tazewell, Tennessee, managing their budget is a delicate balancing act, and one they have become very good at. But high electric bills can make that balance tricky to maintain, sometimes leaving very little in the way of emergency funds, much less for the home repairs they need that could actually lower their energy use.

Liana Schmidt says her electric bills can reach up to $300 in the winter, and fluctuate between $100 and $200 the rest of the year. For Liana, a full-time dietary technician at the Claiborne Medical Center, and her husband Carl, having to pay those bills on such a tight budget can be hard.

“I have kids,” she says. “It’s hard to do and get things for them ‘cause I have to worry about my bills first. You know? Like clothes… or you know things that they need or whatnot. That’s the hardest part.”

The tension between getting by and financial emergency became that much tighter last month when the transmission in her car went out and the brand new well pump in their home broke again. “I have four kids; two of them live with me, and he has Down syndrome,” says Liana nodding her head at 8-year-old C.J. who has abandoned a puzzle to play with a plastic fire truck on the floor of their sunlit kitchen. He is the light of her life, she says, adding quickly that she loves all her children, but a hug from C.J. when she walks in the door can turn her entire day around.

C.J. is susceptible to infection, so regulating temperature in their home is a matter of keeping her son healthy. “I have to make sure that he doesn’t get overheated or too cold or whatever the case may be ‘cause he can get sick very quickly and he is allergic to just about everything. So it’s a struggle.” Just in the last year, C.J. has been hospitalized twice for pneumonia.

When every bit of money saved counts, medical expenses, even with insurance, can add up. Liana’s husband Carl served in the Navy for 20 years, and was exposed to asbestos sometime in the 1980s, which has significantly impacted his health and makes it difficult for him to work full-time. All this has been made much more difficult since the Schmidts were informed in July by their insurance that all of their doctors and their hospital are now out-of-network. They will have to drive almost an hour to receive medical care.

The Schmidts could benefit tremendously from having a more energy-efficient home, to save money on their electric bill and to ensure healthy conditions for C.J. But having the time and money to make the initial investment seems impossible. “If I could just save a little more, just replacing my windows would be a huge huge deal… that would be awesome,” says Liana.

Liana and Carl have done some energy efficiency improvements in their 23-year old house, like replacing all the lightbulbs with compact fluorescents and hanging heavy light-blocking curtains in the living room. “We’ve been trying to do little things here and there,” says Liana. “Even our dishwasher is eco-friendly and our refrigerator is, just about everything that we have is energy efficient. I don’t have a dryer because I like to hang my clothes out and in the wintertime I have a rack so I put everything on a rack.”

Still, Liana knows that to really lower their electric bill, they are going to have to do some more significant upgrades. She points to her kitchen windows saying, “I would love to be able to change these windows but they’re a little expensive right now for us.” Moving over to the windows, Liana says “If you look, you actually can see it,” and pushes her hand against the window to reveal a sizeable gap between the pane and the frame.

Liana heads outside. It’s 92 degrees and the midday sun has no mercy, even the plants in her well-tended garden are drooping as if to say “too much!” It’s clear from the landscaping, which includes a small fruit orchard in the backyard, that the Schmidts put a good deal of time and energy into making their house feel like home.

“We own the land and the house. We have four acres,” says Liana. Gesturing to the wide open space and empty road surrounding their property, she laughs, “It’s awesome back here. My neighbors are cows.” Around the side of the house, she points to a spot close to the roof where some of the siding has come off, revealing a hole a little larger than a softball. It looks like an animal might have created it, but it’s hard to tell. Liana is smiling, but there is exasperation and worry behind her smile when she explains how her husband’s health keeps him from fixing it.

Liana continues to the back of the house, where she opens the door to the crawlspace It’s clear why the Schmidts can feel cold air coming through the floor in the wintertime. Insulation is hanging like pink curtains, rather than being packed tightly in between the joists. Homes can lose up to ten percent of their heating and cooling through uninsulated floors.

Back inside the cool respite of her house, Liana looks up from removing her shoes. “The two biggest things right now is my roof and my windows because I got shingles that are coming off my roof from the wind and whatnot.”

Rural Appalachia has a high concentration of aging and manufactured homes — like the Schmidts’ home — which often lack proper insulation, or their structures have settled allowing air to escape. The culmination of all these factors is that Carl and Liana aren’t the only ones facing high electric bills with little to no resources or access to upfront financing that might provide some relief.

Some utilities have a program called “on-bill financing” which offers people like the Schmidts financing to cover the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades and pay back the money on their monthly bill, using the savings. When asked what it would mean her family to have access to this kind of program, Liana replies, “What would it mean to me? It’d mean a whole lot! Having a Down’s kid, I could do a whole lot more with him. If I could save more money and with my older son, I’d be able to do stuff with him as well. Right now we can’t do a whole lot. That would save us so much more, our bill would definitely drop, and we would be able to do a whole lot more with our kids. Family means everything to us, at this point in time, family is everything. You just never know when your time is up.”

Visit our Energy Savings web page for information on how to start this conversation with your utility.

Murals Showcase Rare Species

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by interns

Knoxville endangered species mural. Photo by Roger Peet, courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity

Knoxville endangered species mural. Photo by Roger Peet, courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity

A 175-foot long wall in Knoxville, Tenn., was transformed into a mural promoting the protection of endangered native species from habitat destruction.It is the largest mural completed by the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Mural Project and Oregon-based artist Roger Peet.

The Knoxville project features pink mucket pearly mussels along with other local endangered species such as Cumberlandian combshell, sheepnose and rabbitsfoot mussels and fish like the Citico darter and blotchside logperch.

The Center also completed a similar mural in Berea, Ky., featuring the white fringeless orchid, which is threatened by logging, development and climate change. Only growing in forested areas with wet soil, the orchid is already extirpated in North Carolina, but can be found in roughly 60 locations in Kentucky and surrounding states.

— Otto Solberg

Chattanooga Launches Solar-Electric Car-Sharing Program

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016 - posted by interns

An electric vehicle car-share program in Chattanooga, Tenn., launched this summer as part of a combined effort between the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, Tennessee Valley Authority, Electric Power Board and the California-based company GreenCommuter.

The first phase of the project included building 20 solar-assisted charging stations around the city that can each charge multiple cars. The program will rely on a fleet of all-electric Nissan Leafs.

“Chattanoogans should be proud of this agreement because we are the first medium-size city in the nation to implement an electric vehicle car-sharing system to reduce emissions and traffic congestion,” Brent Matthews, CARTA director of parking, told WVTC.

— Otto Solberg

Tennessee Passes New Lead Notification Bill and other shorts

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

Tennessee Passes New Lead Notification Bill

In April, Tennessee’s governor passed Senate Bill 2450 requiring quicker notification of dangerous lead levels in public water. Under this law, public water systems must notify the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation within 24 hours and affected residents within 72 hours of discovering levels above the federal standard. The water utilities must also provide information regarding potential contamination sources, health effects and possible mitigation to the agency. The previous law allowed utilities to wait 60 days before notifying the public of lead contamination. — Hannah Petersen

Study Shows Nutrients Returning to Damaged S.C. Soil

An ongoing study by Dr. Dan Richter, a professor of Soils and Forest Ecology at Duke University, shows Piedmont soils are making a slow recovery from erosion and carbon damages caused by cotton production.

According to university news outlet DukeToday, the land in the Piedmont and in western South Carolina lost half a foot of topsoil to erosion due to cotton farming. This caused the soil’s organic carbon level, an indicator of soil health, to drop by almost half by the middle of the 20th century. Richter explains that forests have returned to the area and falling leaves and branches have begun to return nutrients to the soil. — Hannah Petersen

Virginia Greenway Receives Environmental Award

The Hawksbill Greenway in Luray, Va., was honored with a gold medal as a part of the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards. The greenway consists of a two-mile walking and biking trail along the Hawksbill Creek.

A report from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality states that by providing citizens with fitness classes and protecting the creek from pollution using natural barriers, the greenway “encourages wellness and connectivity” throughout the community. — Savannah Clemmons

Environmental Education Center Opens in West Virginia

The National Park Service opened Camp Brookside Environmental Education Center in Brooks, W.Va., on May 21. Originally a children’s summer camp, Camp Brookside was renovated to house research and environmental education services. The center has seven cabins, a mess hall, field study tools and other amenities that can be found at nps.gov/neri. — Hannah Petersen

Online Water Mapping A Useful Tool for Citizens

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an online resource where users can learn more about water sources and water quality. The Drinking Water Mapping Application to Protect Source Waters allows users to enter an address and see both the source of drinking water for that area as well as potential or existing sources of contamination. The tool is located at epa.gov/sourcewaterprotection/dwmaps. —Dylan Turner

Keeping energy through the generations

Friday, June 10th, 2016 - posted by Lou Murrey
Barbara and Paul Cochran, pictured in their very energy efficient home in east Tennessee. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Barbara and Paul Cochran, pictured in their very energy efficient home in east Tennessee. Photo by Lou Murrey.

“We do everything we can to keep energy,” Barbara Taylor says as she heads down the stairs to the basement of the home she has shared with her husband, Paul, in New Tazewell, Tennessee since 1980. Outside it’s a humid 78 degrees, but in the narrow basement room that houses the Taylors’ heat pump it’s cool and dry.

Standing next to a wall of canned fruits and vegetables, Barbara points to the individual pieces of rigid board insulation she has neatly cut to fit between the ceiling joists and chuckles. “See where the pipe is, I put some caulking in and put some insulation ‘round where I finally cut the hole too big.”

The duct that runs along the ceiling from the gas heat pump in the corner of the room is tightly wrapped and sealed with thick insulation and was installed with the original electric heat pump. The Taylors switched to a gas heat pump two years ago when their electric heat pump quit working. Barbara and Paul both maintain that gas was just the more affordable option, even with Powell Valley Electric’s (PVEC) heat pump financing program.

Barbara Cochran points out her energy-efficiency handiwork in her east Tennessee home. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Barbara Cochran points out her energy-efficiency handiwork in her east Tennessee home. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Barbara recalls that in the 80’s when their electric heat pump was installed they did participate in PVEC’s heat pump financing program. The interest was at 8% and the co-op asked the homeowner to do the weatherization improvements themselves before installation. When asked if they would have chosen an electric heat pump had it been more affordable, both of them said yes. “We loved our electric pump,” Barbara says.

Heading back up the stairs to where Paul is waiting on the couch in the living room, Barbara mentions that she and her son installed all the insulation behind the cedar paneling in the basement.

Before they returned to Claiborne County in the 80’s, the Taylors lived in Michigan where Paul was a millwright for the Ford Motor Company. In 1978, he suffered a fall on the job and broke his back and crushed both of his heels, so aside from the installation of the heat pump, Barbara has done the majority of the weatherization in their home. In addition to the joist and duct insulation, she has sealed the windows with caulk, put up heavy curtains on all of the windows, weatherstripped the door so well it hardly opens, and she has still found time to replace the air filter each month.

Together, Paul and Barbara have an extensive knowledge of weatherization, and without hesitation they both profess that they learned it when they were kids. “We were poor when we grew up. He comes from a family of thirteen, and I come from a family of nine,” Barbara says.

“At one time,” Paul picks up the story, “there was twelve of us living in a three room house and a lot of times when they built houses back then they would use green wood and as the wood dried out you’d have cracks in the floor where air would get in.” Thriftiness and a keen understanding of how a home performs most efficiently were just a way of life for their families.

Barbara and Paul both grew up in Claiborne County and just like how they learned to grow and process the food from the garden from their parents, it was from their parents they learned about insulating a home to save money and stay warm. Barbara describes how her mother would use old clothes and newspapers to insulate their home. Paul goes on to explain how his folks used a paste made from flour and water to plaster newspapers to the walls and prevent air leaks. “They put it [the paste] on the wood to let it stick to keep the air from coming into the house.”

The methods behind energy efficiency may have changed but the science behind those methods remain the same. You could say weatherization has become a tradition in the Taylor family, as Paul and Barbara have passed along their skills and sensible approach to using energy efficiently to their own children and grandchildren. Speaking of her children, Barbara proudly reports that in the wintertime they put heavier curtains up. Adds Paul: “They put plastic over their windows that keeps the air that seeps underneath windows, that’ll keep it from coming through.”

If anyone was wondering whether the Taylors’ weatherization efforts have paid off, it seems they have. Their electric bill is barely more than $100 a month, and has been as low as $50 in the winter and that their electric bill and gas bill combined have never been more than $200. An electric bill as low as $50 is not the norm for many people in Claiborne County acknowledges Paul. “I’ll put it this way. Our electric bill is the cheapest one in this community.”

It’s likely true that using gas as a heat source is a factor in their low electric bills, but the weatherization they have done is not only about saving money, it is also about living in a comfortable home. Paul proudly states that if they added any more insulation their ceiling would fall down. The couple recognizes that not everyone has the physical ability, knowledge or money to make weatherization improvements to their home.

Powell Valley Electric Cooperative has an opportunity to participate in a state-wide program that would make energy efficiency improvements such as those the Taylors made accessible to people of any income. The Taylors believe that this “pay-as-you save” on-bill financing program would relieve the energy burden of many people in their community.

To start a conversation with your electric cooperative about the potential for them to offer this program, call them today.

Announcing the Energy Savings for Appalachia webinar series

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 - posted by Amber Moodie-Dyer

Three-part series highlights on-bill financing as a unique opportunity for our region

If you happened to miss our first energy efficiency on-bill financing webinar on May 11, don’t despair. You can watch a recording of the webinar, which is the first in a series describing the benefits of on-bill financing entitled “Leveraging Energy Savings: On-bill Financing as an Economic Opportunity in the Southeast.”

At this point you may be wondering, what is on-bill financing and why might I want to watch a webinar about it? Do you care about saving money on your electric bills, minimizing energy waste, helping the environment and your local economy? Energy efficiency on-bill financing can address all of these concerns. With on-bill financing, people can make energy efficiency improvements to their home without having to foot the bill upfront. Instead, residents pay for the improvements over time through a monthly charge on their electric bill. With a well-designed program, many residents will have lower bills even while paying back the project cost because of the energy savings they’re achieving.

Curious? Watch the webinar below to learn more!

You can watch the one-hour webinar, or simply review the slides here. In the video above you’ll hear Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil discuss the effects of energy waste in the Southeast and Appalachian region, how energy efficiency programs can benefit communities by saving people money and creating jobs, the best practice Pay-As-You-Save® model of on-bill financing for weatherization improvements, sources of capital for on-bill financing programs, case studies of successful on-bill finance programs and ways you can engage in our campaign.

Keep a look out for an announcement about the second webinar in the series next month that will delve into what we’re learning about on-bill financing from a number of electric cooperatives throughout the country who offer this program (including some in our own region and state). Visit the Energy Savings for Appalachia homepage to learn more about campaign, and while you’re there, be sure to go to our Energy Savings Action Center to submit a letter to your utility provider a letter asking them to offer on-bill financing.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Sleeping giants: TVA and Georgia Power stuck in second gear on energy efficiency

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editors’ Note: This piece, by Taylor Allred, is the third entry in a blog series entitled Energy Savings in the Southeast and featured on the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s footprints blog. The series will cover the performance of Southeastern utilities’ energy efficiency programs, and highlight how the region can achieve more money-saving and carbon-reducing energy savings. Future posts in this series can be found here.

While even the region’s top achievers have room for improvement, some of the largest utilities in the Southeast are seriously falling behind on energy efficiency. In particular, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Georgia Power are two enormously capable utilities that appear to be stuck in second gear.

Huge Potential, Anemic Growth

TVA

Energy-Savings-Chart-Feb-20162

The nation’s largest public power provider, TVA provides generation and transmission to 154 electric cooperatives and municipal utilities serving more than 9 million people across seven states. In addition, TVA provides power to 59 directly served industrial customers.

TVA started ramping up its energy savings in 2011, following a relatively favorable outcome for energy efficiency in its 2011 integrated resource plan (IRP). Apart from the IRP, the federal utility also signed a 2011 EPA Consent Decree settlement over coal-plant emissions violations that, among other things, called for TVA to spend at least $240 million on energy efficiency. Following up on the IRP, the TVA Board challenged its staff to achieve savings equivalent to the output of a new nuclear plant, and TVA did just that with its EnergyRight Solutions programs, reporting 1,126 MW in avoided capacity additions from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2014.

Not surprisingly, the cost of TVA’s energy savings – about $0.02 per kWh – was far lower than the $0.10 to $0.14 per kWh cost of new nuclear energy reported by Lazard. However, the ultra-low cost energy savings also indicate that they could be doing a lot more. TVA’s net savings rate of 0.25% ranks in the bottom half of major Southeastern utilities.

Georgia Power

Georgia Power is the largest subsidiary of Southern Company, one of the largest power providers in the country. As the only investor-owned electric utility in Georgia, the company serves more than 2.4 million customers, including the Atlanta metro area.

While it has achieved higher savings than TVA, Georgia Power has been on a slow growth trajectory over the past few years, and just under half of its 0.43% 2014 savings came from prescriptive commercial incentives, such as fluorescent lighting retrofits. Commercial lighting is a fairly easy way for utilities to achieve a base level of energy savings at an extremely low cost, but it is critical to also invest fully in the many other opportunities for cost-effective savings.

Non-Residential Savings

Both TVA and Georgia Power derive about three-quarters of their energy savings from non-residential customers, but both utilities are still far from fully capturing their huge non-residential savings potential – for completely opposite reasons having to do with their industrial energy efficiency programs.

On the one hand, Georgia Power has no energy efficiency programs for large industrial customers – industrial interest groups maintain an active stance against developing programs tailored to their members’ needs. But just to the north, TVA’s industrial program is limited not by opposition from industrial interest groups, but by TVA’s budget. Industrial customer interest in the program is so high that TVA has suspended new applications for months at a time when funds have run out. Thankfully, TVA’s programs are currently all funded and operating.

The Role of Resource Planning

One of the biggest opportunities to increase energy savings is in the treatment of energy efficiency in integrated resource planning. Utilities typically just pick a modest number as an energy efficiency target, and then subtract that figure from their demand forecasts prior to modeling generation resources based on costs.

The problem with that approach is that energy efficiency is actually the least-cost resource available (and clean!), so it’s wasteful not to maximize cost-effective energy efficiency. A better approach is to model energy efficiency as an energy resource on equal footing with generation resources, but very few utilities have tried it.

TVA’s 2015 IRP

With its 2015 IRP, TVA broke new ground by becoming the first Southeastern utility to model energy efficiency as a resource, something SACE had recommended in our 2011 IRP comments. Unfortunately, TVA developed a methodology that inappropriately inflated the cost of energy efficiency and placed unreasonable limits on its ability to compete on a level playing field with other resources. However, TVA has been sharing its experience and could inspire other utilities to model energy efficiency, possibly with better methodologies.

In a year full of changes, it appears that TVA’s fiscal year 2015 net savings have declined to about 0.2% of sales, but new programs could drive growth in the near future. TVA launched a promising new residential audit and retrofit program called eScore in early 2015, and has recently been exploring options for serving lower-income customers, who are generally unable to access TVA’s energy efficiency rebates due to high upfront costs. SACE is engaging on those efforts, and we commend TVA for its interest in providing equitable offerings for lower-income customers.

Georgia Power’s 2016 IRP

Georgia Power filed its 2016 IRP in late January, and unfortunately, it represents more of the same. The company has not modeled energy efficiency as a resource, and its plan provides for only modest growth in energy savings. SACE will testify as an intervenor in the IRP proceeding and recommend ways the company could significantly increase its cost-effective energy savings. One solution we plan to recommend is a tariff-based on-bill financing program that would enable customers to make energy efficiency upgrades with no money down, and achieve immediate bill savings that are greater than the monthly payments.

SACE will continue pushing TVA and Georgia Power to increase their energy savings to catch up with regional leaders such as Entergy Arkansas. We are hopeful that a healthy spirit of competition, as well as Southeastern utilities’ growing experience with energy efficiency, will help to drive significant growth across the region over the next few years.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

The Hidden Gem of Rocky Fork

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Lorelei Goff

Hike to Birchfield Camp Lake

A view of Birchfield Camp Lake in June. Photo by Marty Silver, Tennessee State Parks

A view of Birchfield Camp Lake in June. Photo by Marty Silver, Tennessee State Parks

I arrive at the Lower Higgens Creek trailhead with a dozen other hikers, ranging from an 8-year-old to some with many miles and years to their credit. The jovial banter of Ranger Tim Pharis, Ranger Naturalist Marty Silver and State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath of Tennessee State Parks enlivens our group. This First Day hike on January 1, will take us 2.7 miles to the 100-foot Big Falls on Lower Higgens Creek and Birchfield Camp Lake, a small, man-made lake sitting at 4,000 feet above sea level.

“The name Birchfield Camp comes from the old logging camp that was up here, named after the Birchfield Logging Company,” Pharis says. “The lake was built to suppress wildfires.”

After large-scale logging operations ceased in the 1960s, the 10,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest known as Rocky Fork remained undeveloped. A decades-long saga, rife with drama and even some intrigue between private sector developers and an alliance of government agencies and activists, ended in 2012 with the land secured for public ownership and enjoyment within the Cherokee National Forest. Rocky Fork State Park, now in development, occupies 2,000 acres of Rocky Fork in Unicoi County, Tenn. The remaining 8,000 acres span portions of Unicoi and Greene counties.

Hikers willing to ford the trail’s creek crossings. Photo by Marty Silver, Tennessee State Parks

Hikers willing to ford the trail’s creek crossings. Photo by Marty Silver, Tennessee State Parks

We start up the remnant of an old logging road, coming to a gravel parking area after about a third of a mile. Hedgepath spots a putty root, a wild orchid with pin-striped leaves. It was traditionally used to seal windows, he says. According to Ranger Silver, Rocky Fork harbors several unique species of orchids and rare trilliums, around 80 species of mosses and liverworts, and rare salamanders including the Yonahlossee, a large, black salamander with a distinctive rusty blotch on its back.

Roughly a mile into our hike, the sound of flowing water grows to a roar and we stop at Big Falls. A steep but short path drops off dramatically to the right, descending to the foot of the falls. The recent rains have swelled the normally tame 100-foot cascade into a foaming cataract. Most of the group makes their way down the slippery path with the help of a safety line secured from top to bottom. We take pictures amid the spray, then climb back up to the trail.

We make the first of several creek crossings a short distance later. After the second creek crossing, the trail veers from Lower Higgens Creek and follows Birchfield Camp Branch, fed by the lake above.

The mood is mirthful, despite the dropping temperature. After more creek crossings, we ascend the steepest segment of the trail and come upon the rusted bones of an ancient logging truck. We explore its remains wondering how it met its demise between the trail and the creek.

The big waterfall on Lower Higgens Creek. Photo by Marty Silver, Tennessee State Parks

The big waterfall on Lower Higgens Creek. Photo by Marty Silver, Tennessee State Parks

The creek sliced through the mountain long before loggers cut a road alongside its path, so narrow that it’s hard to imagine logging trucks descending with their pillage.

The last stretch takes us past a couple of caves to the right and then we see the lake, surrounded by white pines and mountain laurel. It’s small, but the beauty of the scene is augmented by the exhilaration of reaching it. Rumor has it that it’s a popular dining area for local bears, with frog legs being a favorite dish. We all sit down to dine on our lunches, and some stroll along the .75-mile loop around the lake. No bears in sight, just a lone turkey hunter ambling through. On a warmer afternoon, it would be hard to leave, but a raw chill is seeping through our layers and there are some wet feet from crossing creeks. We head back down the trail in the waning light of 2016’s first day.

Lower Higgens Falls & Birchfield Camp Lake

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous with some challenging creek crossings

Details: 5.4 miles round-trip. Wear high boots, gaiters and bring extra socks

Directions: From I-26, take exit #43. Turn right onto 19/23. After .75 mile, turn right onto Lower Higgins Road, which will end at a small parking area. Groups can park at the I-26 Welcome Center and carpool.

Contact:Contact Rocky Fork State Park: 423-271-1233, tnstateparks.com and Cherokee National Forest, Watauga Ranger District: 423-735-1500, fs.usda.gov/cherokee

More info: “Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild,” a book by local conservationist and photographer David Ramsey, will be available in spring 2016 through daramseyphotography.com

Radioactive Sludge Being Removed from Sewage Facility

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

Two years after radioactive sludge was discovered, the Department of Energy is still removing it from the city of Oak Ridge’s sewage treatment facility.

The pollution was caused by technetium-99 that entered through pipelines in the sewer system from the demolition project at the federal government’s K-25 uranium-enrichment plant on the Clinch River, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. The plant was built in 1943 as part of the U.S. government’s Manhattan Project, and at that time was the largest building in the world; it is now the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest demolition project.

Since 2014, containment and cleanup of the treatment facility has been in progress, and about 75,000 gallons of radioactive sludge has been removed from and transferred to a Perma-Fix Environmental treatment facility in Richland, Wash.

The Department of Energy contractor in charge of the cleanup recently told the Knoxville News Sentinel that as removal continues, they will approach the upcoming demolition work at the adjacent K-27 facility with the lessons learned from the K-25 project, taking steps to ensure the radioactive contaminants do not once more reach the town’s sewage treatment plant. — Charlotte Wray

Tennessee Leading the Way in Animal Abuse Accountability

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

At the beginning of 2016, Tennessee became the first state to implement an animal abuse registry. This registry, available to the public online, will list anybody convicted of committing an animal abuse offense. This list will host people convicted of crimes after January 1. Those responsible for passing the law hope to prevent future cases of animal cruelty, as well as better screen people during adoptions. Concurrently, the FBI began tracking animal abuse as a Group A felony, which has placed it in the same category as homicide and assault. — Dylan Turner