Posts Tagged ‘Virginia’

Takin’ 5 with Tony Flaccavento

Saturday, November 28th, 2015 - posted by cat


A jack of all trades … a man for all seasons … Anthony Flaccavento certainly fits the bill. And now he can add self-made YouTube personality to the list.

Anthony has been a certified organic farmer in far Southwest Virginia for some two decades. In 1995, he founded Appalachian Sustainable Development, which has become a regional and national leader in sustainable economic development. More recently he founded SCALE, Inc., a private consulting business dedicated to catalyzing and supporting ecologically healthy regional economies and food systems. He is the author of “Healthy Food Systems: A Tool Kit for building Value Chains” and more than 100 published articles.

An active community leader and one-time contender for Congress (9th District, Va., in 2012), Anthony overlays his knowledge of agriculture and food systems squarely on the issue of diversifying the coal-impacted communities of Central Appalachia. As author and renowned climate activist Bill McKibben said:

“There‘s no more hopeful movement in the United States than the drive towards local food, and with it strong regional economies. As he has been for so many years, Anthony Flaccavento is at the forefront of this movement; if SCALE can go to scale, we‘ll all be the better for it.”

Anthony doesn’t stop with farming. His understanding of the economic, social and political forces that shape human lives–and the ways to change those forces for the better–extends to myriad other arenas.

Curious? Check out his video series, Take 5 with Tony, in which he explains in short clips and plain language the in’s and out’s of economic diversification.

Sizing up APCo’s plan, through customers’ eyes

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company's resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy's role going forward.

Customers of Appalachian Power Company gather in Roanoke to learn about the company’s resource plan and the benefits of expanding clean energy’s role going forward.

Dozens of energy customers gathered in Roanoke on Tuesday evening for one reason: the electricity system in this country is undergoing some exciting changes, yet utilities’ choices can still hold Virginia back from rapid progress toward a diverse energy mix.

Residents are showing they want to learn more and get involved in these critical decisions.

Utilities in Virginia must submit plans, called Integrated Resource Plans, discussing their intended approaches to meeting customer demand. State regulators require these plans at intervals, providing a window for customers to engage with their electricity provider. The State Corporation Commission is currently considering Appalachian Power Company’s latest plan, which is set to be heard in an official proceeding before a regulatory panel on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

This newest plan is notable in many ways. The company acknowledges that market changes have made renewable energy economically advantageous. Meanwhile, federal standards on carbon pollution are in a final form, another factor that can drive change. But here are a few points that illustrate how APCo’s plan stands to impede Virginia from harnessing its full renewable energy potential at the scale that would most benefit for customers and the economy.

The Effect of the Clean Power Plan

The CEO of APCo parent company American Electric Power, Nick Akins, recently stated that “The Clean Power Plan is no doubt a catalyst for the investments … to support not only the movement of the customers but also reducing the environmental footprint.”

Though rather non-specific, this comment is encouraging and reflects a recognition of the beneficial nature of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s actions.

The flexibility, even leniency, that characterizes the Clean Power Power offers protection against legal challenges but is also a potential shortcoming when it comes to achieving long-term pollution reductions while states go about complying with the standard. Sophisticated computer modeling can help utilities determine cost-effective ways of meeting targets. At this point, APCo has only modeled the consequences of a carbon tax. The review process for its current resource plan is an opportunity for regulators to ask the company to show different possible approaches for reducing carbon emissions enough to meet new standards. If they do, it could present ways to meet the standards that will economically benefit customers, like greater reliance on bill-shrinking energy efficiency programs to meet demand.

Capping the Amount of Solar APCo Develops

The headlines over the summer when APCo released its resource plan were striking: “Appalachian turns toward sun and wind for future energy.” It sounded like a major shift was taking place. And there was a perceptible change in tone in the plan itself: “In the recent past, development of [renewable] resources has been driven primarily as the result of renewable portfolio requirements. That is not universally true now as advancements in both solar [photovoltaic] and wind turbine manufacturing have reduced both installed and ongoing costs.”

But how big a shift is APCo really proposing, how fast would it happen? After several weeks of analysis, we can say this much: the shift could be bigger, but APCo is imposing some strict, arbitrary limits on the solar projects and energy efficiency programs it’s pursuing.

Coal is decreasing in APCo’s resource mix, as one plant goes out of service and other is converted to natural gas, which seems as though it would make room for increased use of a popular, proven technologies like solar. But APCo’s preferred plan includes 835 megawatts of new natural gas-fired power, which detracts from renewable energy investments. A new gas-fired power plant would lock us into decades of dependence on a fossil fuel with potentially more volatile price swings and an environmentally degrading life-cycle that includes fracking and transmission by pipeline.

Why does APCo propose to stop at 510 MW of solar between now and 2029, when the fuel source is free and the resource is cost-effective? It appears these limits are without reason or rhyme, so regulators will likely ask APCo to explain where its numbers come from and demonstrate why is preferred plan is the best deal for customers.

An Energy Efficiency Economy under APCo’s Plan?

Energy efficiency programs seek to capture energy that otherwise gets wasted, capitalizing on home auditing technology and expertise, modern appliance and HVAC design, and other strategies to make sure customers enjoy the same amount of comfort and convenience while using less energy. Utilities including Duke Energy and Georgia Power are reducing demand through from efficiency programs, in the neighborhood of 1 percent energy saved every year,, avoiding the need for some costlier new peak or baseline generation additions — like natural gas fired plants. The question is: does APCo approach energy efficiency in a way that values these benefits as lasting and quantifiable?

APCo’s plan only expects a 1 percent improvement in energy efficiency over the next 15 years. As with the company’s solar modeling, it’s our sense that APCo is artificially limiting efficiency as a resource in its plans. The company also cites customer “acceptance and saturation” as a factor that stands to determine program cost and potentially the total impact on energy use. We know from listening to customers that people are eager to better control their energy use, and efficiency programs are a popular, basic service. When several new programs become available Jan. 1, 2016, we look forward to seeing them promoted and Appalachian Voices will do its part to get the word out about how residents can shrink their bills.

APCo does provide much-needed weatherization programs for its low-income customers that are managed by providers in the service area, which can provide work in good, often career-length jobs. But program offerings that are not income-qualified remain limited, and in order to reach Virginia’s voluntary goal of 10 percent energy efficiency by 2020, a non-binding target endorsed by General Assembly and Governor McAuliffe, APCo must design and get approval for much more robust programs.

Meanwhile, more and more APCo customers are opting to go solar each year, investing in their energy future and using less energy from the grid. Yet, that trend is also not encouraged in APCo’s plan — rather, the company tacitly subscribes to the existing system of fees, system size limitations, permit waiting periods, and other restrictions.

Plans Are Not “Set in Stone” — Stay Committed to Change

Clean energy investments proposed in APCo’s plan such as solar farms and wind installations aren’t exactly set in stone; they are contingent on approval by the State Corporation Commission, which may depend on whether current federal tax incentives are extended, reduced, or allowed to expire. According to APCo’s plan,decisions about whether or not to proceed will be made later, based on whether there are “suitable opportunities.”

It is critical that APCo customers remain engaged to support energy freedom and diversifying Virginia’s energy mix with renewables during the review of APCo’s energy plan and beyond. So take a moment to send a comment now.

Want to help spread the word? How about taking a picture of yourself holding a handwritten message or captioned with text about APCo’s plan? Try something like:

  • APCo: Don’t CAP Solar in your plan — Re-evaluate clean energy
  • Stop whittling our energy freedom away — Let people go solar
  • ​I urge APCo to expand efficiency programs for affordable bills

Tag us on social media or email your photo to, and thanks for supporting clean energy!

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I heard it through the pipeline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAKE ACTION: Urge Complete Environmental Review of Pipeline Proposals

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

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

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

I’m glad that wound up in the paper.

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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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Charlottesville Joins National Day of Climate Action

Monday, October 19th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Concerned citizens and clean energy advocates gather on the downtown mall in Charlottesville for a National Day of Climate Action.

Concerned citizens and clean energy advocates gather on the downtown mall in Charlottesville for a National Day of Climate Action.

In probably the largest and most diverse environmental justice rally our community has ever seen, more than 150 residents of Central Virginia gathered in downtown Charlottesville last Wednesday with a clear, two-point message to our leaders: Stop the gas pipelines and address the climate crisis.

The event was part of a National Day of Action that included more than 200 demonstrations across the country, with citizens calling on leaders at all levels to take meaningful steps now to curb America’s carbon footprint and bring more clean energy online. The day of action was planned as part of the build-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December in Paris where world leaders will make critical decisions that will impact generations to come.

Across the country, some of the largest actions were in places not generally known for big climate actions: Pittsburgh, Orlando, Phoenix and St Louis. In Virginia, folks rallied at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and in Leesburg and Roanoke.

Opening the Charlottesville event was Susan Elliott, the city’s Climate Protection Program Coordinator. “Here in Charlottesville, over 25 organizations have already enthusiastically stepped up to support Energize!Charlottesville, our local campaign to save energy and win the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize. Residents are interested in what they can do to save energy at home and how to make clean energy choices. That’s one way we can take action together to benefit our community and do what’s right for the climate.”

Adrian Jones, a resident of Union Hill, Va., where a huge natural gas compressor station would be located along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, speaks to the crowd about his opposition to the project.

Adrian Jones, a resident of Union Hill, Va., where a huge natural gas compressor station would be located along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, speaks to the crowd about his opposition to the project.

Wednesday’s rally was attended by a diverse crowd of business professionals, students, climate justice activists, concerned energy consumers, and others. A large contingent of people against the proposed massive natural gas pipelines in the region also attended, voicing concerns for both local ecological impacts as well as the climate impacts of the projects.

For a spirited demonstration reflecting Wahoo pride, participants held orange People’s Climate Movement banners and wore blue to show opposition to gas pipelines. The rally was organized by Appalachian Voices, University of Virginia Climate Action Society, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, 350 Central Virginia, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and garnered significant media coverage on TV, radio, and print.

Dahvi Wilson of Apex Clean Energy, a renewable energy company based in Charlottesville, summed up a business perspective: “Those of us who are watching closely can already see a tectonic shift beginning. The writing is on the wall. Corporations are seeking to source more of the power they need from renewable generation facilities. The U.S. is recognizing our role in creating this problem, and we are embracing our responsibility to help solve it.”

In brief remarks to the crowd, Del. David Toscano described the political lay of the land in Virginia’s General Assembly: “Some of my colleagues are voting and talking as if they don’t believe in science. … Well, let me tell you, we have the people on our side, the times are changing and we’re going to get more renewable energy in this country and in Virginia.”

Earlier this month, Governor Terry McAuliffe emphasized in a newspaper commentary that the effects of climate change are happening now, here in the commonwealth, and stressed the broad benefits of building a clean energy economy.

Planning for more national climate actions for the weekend of November 28 is now taking shape to keep the drumbeat of citizen involvement building and the grassroots momentum growing in every corner of the country.

In Central Virginia, we can take this opportunity to realize that as we vigilantly fight the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the other natural gas pipelines proposed in the region, we do so alongside other communities across the country and around the world working to prevent fossil fuel extraction, transmission and combustion in their communities. We resist them as communities have resisted new coal mining operations and coal-fired power plants, both because the direct environmental harms are too serious and because we know it is essential to transition to large-scale clean energy to combat the climate crisis.

We carry that spirit forward.

>> Learn more about our work on climate change
>> Learn more about our work on fracking and pipelines

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Coalfields Expressway

Friday, October 16th, 2015 - posted by interns

Virginia Highway Project Raises Questions about Relationship Between Coal and Roads

By Molly Moore

The approximate route of the proposed Coalfields Expressway would traverse southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia. Map courtesy Virginia Department of Transportation

The approximate route of the proposed Coalfields Expressway would traverse southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia. Map courtesy Virginia Department of Transportation

Ever since Appalachian coal began to power the Industrial Revolution, this fuel has influenced the location and condition of roads in the coal-bearing regions. In Virginia, a highway project currently under consideration — and partially under construction — is raising questions about the relationship between coal and the commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure.

The Coalfields Expressway was proposed as a way to link U.S. Route 23 in Virginia with Interstate 77 and Interstate 64 in West Virginia, attract new business and tourism to the area and diversify the local economy away from a dependence on coal mining. In the 1990s, the proposed four-lane thoroughfares in both states were designated Congressional High Priority Corridors. And in 2001, the Virginia Department of Transportation completed its environmental review of a host of road proposals, settling on a preferred route.

Yet the effort was stymied by the cost of constructing a new highway in the rugged Appalachian landscape — until West Virginia found a financial workaround. The Mountain State developed a partnership where mining companies would extract coal along the highway route, providing a rough-grade roadbed at a steep discount to the state in return.

In 2006, the Virginia Department of Transportation and two coal companies — Alpha Natural Resources and Pioneer Group — decided to follow the West Virginia model and began investigating a similar plan for the commonwealth’s 26-mile portion of the Coalfields Expressway, also known as Route 121. A small portion of the road has been approved and is in various stages of construction, but the remainder of the highway is on hold awaiting further review.

After the coal companies joined the process, the public-private partnership announced a new preferred route, one that wasn’t part of the 2001 review. The announcement spurred local debate over whether the expressway would bring promised economic development, and raised questions about how high of an environmental cost is allowable in the name of a new highway.

The route change also attracted fresh scrutiny from the Federal Highways Administration, which is working with VDOT on a new study of the road’s positive and negative impacts that is expected to be released this fall.

The Coal Road

Jessica Bier lives near Pound, Va., close to the southern terminus of the Coalfields Expressway. She has studied the various environmental review documents over the past decade. After poring over the documents associated with the coal company partnership and the new route, Bier concluded that “Instead of a project designed to maximize utility and public good, it was now about maximizing access to coal reserves to maximize coal company profits.”

The new route shifted the location of the roadway, sometimes by two or three miles, to better align with the coal reserves. According to a VDOT report, “Compared to the previous route, the new location would maximize coal recovery, seek to avoid abandoned underground mine areas, and provide a somewhat straighter alignment for the highway.”

But this new route also clear-cuts 2,000 acres of forest and destroys 12 miles of streams instead of the 720 acres of forest and four miles of streams affected by the 2001 route.

Representatives from VDOT say that recovering coal reserves from the roadbed is incidental to the construction of the highway. But opponents of surface mining, including nonprofit organizations Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices and Sierra Club, are quick to point out that the partnership with the state also qualifies the companies for the Government Finance Exemption.

This state clause means that the coal-mining operations associated with the Coalfields Expressway would be subject to the environmental standards that govern highway-building rather than federal surface mining regulations. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy would be responsible for ensuring that mining occurs only within the boundaries of the new route and is an engineering necessity.

In 2012, VDOT released an assessment of the environmental impacts of the revised project, a study that the nonprofits found inadequate. The groups urged the Federal Highways Administration to require a more comprehensive review to provide the public with information about how the new route would affect natural resources and community health compared with alternative transportation options. The study, called a supplemental environmental impact statement, would also consider the economic effect of relocating the route away from several town centers.

“The impacts of mountaintop removal are significant, and have been well documented in peer-reviewed studies,” says Kate Rooth of Appalachian Voices. “Our concern is not with building a road, but rather, with the reliance on destructive mining practices to build it.”

Following the assessment’s release, Marley Green, a Sierra Club organizer at the time, stated that a more thorough analysis was needed to determine how the route will affect the health of nearby residents, particularly in light of studies that have connected health problems to surface mining. He also questioned whether the stream damage that would result from the new route might overwhelm already-impaired waterways and violate the Clean Water Act.

The Federal Highways Administration agreed with the request for a more robust review, and the federal agency and VDOT are now conducting a supplemental environmental impact statement.

Citizens’ Alternatives

Buses transporting students to and from Ridgeview High School on Route 83 must contend with a steep descent and frequently clogged roadway. Photo by Molly Moore

Buses transporting students to and from Ridgeview High School on Route 83 must contend with a steep descent and frequently clogged roadway. Photo by Molly Moore

Environmental advocates including Rooth hoped that the additional analysis provided by the new comprehensive review will help determine whether the Coalfields Expressway — which has an estimated taxpayer price tag of $2.8 billion — is indeed the strongest long-term economic investment on the table.

In the winter of 2015, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club convened several hearings to solicit citizen input regarding alternative transportation improvements that could help boost the area’s economy. The organizations requested that VDOT consider the citizen proposals alongside the various routes for the Coalfields Expressway, both as alternatives to the new highway and as ideas for future transportation planning.

Among the proposals voiced during those forums were calls to either widen portions of Route 83, the state highway that parallels the proposed route of the Coalfields Expressway, or make it a four-lane road in its entirety.

“Transportation dollars should be spent on the secondary roads that need attention and on trail systems that could increase tourism/recreation opportunities,” notes Bier.

Area residents also suggested modifications to widen or add bridges to other nearby state highways, such as Route 80 and Route 63, and emphasized the need to improve traffic patterns in several town centers by adding stoplights, turn lanes and traffic circles. Improving access to parks and recreation areas by paving gravel roads and enhancing signage was also a top priority at the sessions, with locals highlighting the John W. Flannagan Reservoir and Cranes Nest Campground in Dickenson County.

Residents also suggested increased investment in the regional agency on aging, which provides the sole public transit option in the area, and also recommended support for other projects, such as the Spearhead Trails motorcycle and ATV Park, that have already had a positive impact on the economy.

Like many local leaders, Dickenson County Board of Supervisors Chair David Yates sees roads as economic opportunities. He is in favor of improving Route 83 by increasing the number of turn and passing lanes on this two-lane highway, which is easily clogged by industrial truck traffic.

Yates also supports the Coalfields Expressway, and believes it would make the county a more appealing location for light manufacturing. “The transportation piece would put us on an even playing field,” he says. “Our people have an intuitive feeling for solving problems and [making] things work.”

Others are more skeptical of the claims that the expressway project would bring economic prosperity. Bier questions claims from VDOT and public officials that the road will result in long-term job creation. “Time, money and efforts of citizens, public officials and agencies would be better spent on looking for other ways to improve [the] economic outlook of the area,” she adds.

Waiting Game

Despite the citizens’ alternatives, the government team currently preparing the supplemental review will compare only the four coal-synergy routes: the one outlined in the 2012 study and three of the routes from the 2001 deliberations, including the route originally endorsed in 2001 — leaving the grassroots proposals out of the analysis.

“It’s critical that VDOT and Federal Highways Administration keep in mind that the purpose of the Coalfields Expressway was to improve transportation for local communities and diversify the regional economy which has for so long depended on coal mining,” says Kristin Davis of Southern Environmental Law Center. “The purpose is not to simply maximize coal mining along the route, and it’s the role of VDOT and FHWA to consider the impacts of a full range of reasonable alternatives and ensure that they are consistent with those purposes.”

Bier and other residents have expressed concern that should the Coalfields Expressway break ground using the “coal synergy” approach, construction might progress just far enough for the companies to recover the coal, but that private and government funding might be too shaky or insufficient to see the highway part of the project to completion. Complicating the matter, Alpha Natural Resources, one of the companies implicated in the coal synergy partnership, declared bankruptcy during the summer of 2015.

Heather Williams, a project manager at VDOT, said she could not comment on the project’s funding, noting that the agency will look into financial feasibility only after the supplemental analysis is completed and a final route is chosen.

The comprehensive review is expected to be released this fall, with an opportunity for the public to provide in-person comments in late winter or early spring. Only then will the agency choose a route and assess the financial viability of the project, Williams says.

Meanwhile, Davis hopes that the study underway will provide the public with a full understanding of how the agencies reach their conclusion. “If [VDOT and the Federal Highways Administration] come to a decision after looking at all direct and indirect and cumulative impacts of a coal synergy approach, the public needs to understand what information that decision was based on,” she says.

White House POWER Initiative grants awarded

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by brian
The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

Dozens of groups working to increase employment and diversify the economies of historically coal-reliant communities got some good news today.

The White House has announced $14.5 million in grant awards for organizations and local governments across 12 states that are building a better economic future for their communities. A majority of the 36 awards, and most of the grant dollars, are going to plan or implement projects in Central Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices congratulates all the grant recipients, especially our friends and allies among them, on receiving funding for their incredibly deserving and meaningful efforts.

You may have seen news about the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan on this blog, in The Appalachian Voice, or in other regional or national media. The White House describes today’s round of grants as a “down payment” on that plan — a swifter move that recognizes the “immediacy of the economic need in coal country.” Here’s some helpful background from the White House’s announcement:

In the spring of 2015, four federal agencies announced coordinated funding solicitations for grant awards on two parallel tracks to partnerships anchored in communities impacted by the downturn in the coal economy.

The POWER Planning Grants solicitation was released in April by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to assist community-based partnerships develop comprehensive economic development strategic plans for their regions.

The POWER Implementation Grants Federal Funding Opportunity was released in May with available funding from the Economic Development Administration, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Federal Funding Opportunity made funding available to partnerships in impacted communities to help them: (1) diversify their economies; (2) create jobs in new or existing industries; (3) attract new sources of job-creating investment; and (4) provide a range of workforce services and skills training for high-quality, in-demand jobs.

Based on those goals it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the funding will support projects in Kentucky and West Virginia, the two states most severely impacted by coal’s economic decline. A handful of the awards will help groups in rural areas of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia that have also seen significant job losses.

We’ll be following some of these projects and look forward to sharing the successes to come. But for now, take a look at the list of POWER grant recipients and you’ll get a sense of the range of exciting projects taking place in Central Appalachia.

Oh, and we’d be remiss not to mention that the POWER Initiative and POWER+ Plan have broad and growing bipartisan support. More than two dozen Central Appalachian localities have passed resolutions that support the POWER+ Plan specifically and call for economic development funding to soften the acute effects of the regional coal industry’s collapse and spur sustainable economic growth.

There are critics, of course, but most of them are either paid by the coal industry or so ideologically driven and wedded to “war on coal” rhetoric that, well, they say things like National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich. “These are tantamount to war reparations paid by a government guilty of indiscriminate destruction,” Popovich told E&E News shortly before comparing President Obama to a 15th-century Mongol conquerer.

We’re cautiously optimistic that that kind of astronomical hyperbole is on its way out. Even some of coal’s greatest champions in Congress seem like they’re are coming down to earth. According to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY):

“We know there isn’t a silver bullet to overcome the many challenges we face in the Appalachian region, but with continued collaboration of resources and ingenuity, the future is much brighter for the people who want to live and work here at home.”

Rogers’ words are a reminder that siding with coal should never come before stepping up and doing what’s right for Appalachia’s future.

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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.


Natural Gas Pipelines Encroach on Appalachia

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

In August, a West Virginia circuit court judge ruled in favor of Bryan and Doris McCurdy of Greenville, W. Va., denying the Mountain Valley Pipeline project access to their private property to conduct a survey. This proposed natural gas pipeline would stretch 300 miles from northwest West Virginia to southern Virginia, but the judge ruled that the pipeline operators “failed to establish that the project would provide sufficient public use to justify entering private property without an owner’s permission,” according to an article by the Associated Press.

Another proposed natural gas project, Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, officially applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in September for permission to begin construction on a 564-mile pipeline that would extend from north-central West Virginia, across Virginia and into North Carolina. The project is expected to cost $5.1 billion.
— By Elizabeth E. Payne

Reaching for Virginia’s clean power potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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