Posts Tagged ‘Virginia’

Ecotourism Rises Along with Hope for a Region’s Future

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Dan Radmacher

After enduring generations of the booms and busts of an economy almost entirely dependent on the coal industry, the residents of far southwest Virginia are beginning to take their economic future into their own hands by capitalizing on the mountainous region’s incredible natural beauty to promote ecotourism.

The movement may have begun, oddly enough, with an act of arson.

Built in the 1930s, the High Knob Tower provided spectacular, 360-degree views of five states from the top of a 4,000-foot ridge in Wise County. The High Knob Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest not only includes the tower, but also a four-acre lake, a 50-acre campground and plenty of hiking and biking trails.

Shayne Fields pauses at an overlook above Norton, Va.

During a ride along a new mountain bike trail, Shayne Fields pauses at an overlook above Norton, Va. An avid mountain biker, he sees the creation of new trails as an investment in the city’s future. Photo by Erin Savage.

The tower, rebuilt in the 1970s, was ingrained in the hearts and history of the region’s residents, according to Steve Brooks, former executive director of the Clinch Coalition and a volunteer distributor for The Appalachian Voice.

“Men share stories about proposing to their wives there,” Brooks says. “Families went there for Sunday picnics. It’s just been a place people go.”

After the tower was burned down seven years ago by arsonists, a coalition came together to rebuild the iconic structure. U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher — who would go on to lose his 2010 re-election bid — helped organize the group, which included environmentalists and conservationists as well as coal and utility industry representatives.

Much of that coalition came together to form the High Knob Enhancement Corporation, which worked to raise the money to rebuild the tower and to promote the enhancement and use of High Knob and surrounding areas.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen such a diverse group of people that worked so closely and so well together,” says Rita McReynolds, a former town council member from St. Paul, Va. “What an effort. Everyone pitched in. School kids donated quarters.”

A ribbon-cutting for the $600,000 project was held on Aug. 22. McReynolds says the energy at the event was exhilarating.

“I was amazed at all the people who were asking, ‘What’s next?’ And that’s the question,” McReynolds says. “What can we do to tie in the tower to other things near it and around it? It’s going to be a catalyst for things to come.”

And other things are coming. Norton is developing a series of trails in and around the city, including nearly 20 miles of mountain bike trails at the Flag Rock Recreational Area, a 1,000-acre parcel of land owned by the city.

A rider bikes along the Sugar Maple Trail

A rider balances her bike on a log feature during her first visit to the new Sugar Maple Trail. Photo by Shayne Fields.

“We’re working with the U.S. Forest Service to build a trail from the Norton reservoir and Flag Rock area to the High Knob Tower,” Mark Caruso, a Norton city council member, said in an email.

“From there, hikers, bikers and equestrians can travel from Dungannon to High Knob to Norton or Big Cherry Reservoir and the Devil’s Bathtub Area,” he says. “The Lost Creek Trail will link the city to the Jefferson National Forest.”

Shayne Fields, a member of the Lonesome Pines Bike Club, has been working for the city to design the mountain bike trail system for the Flag Rock Recreation Area.

“I see this as an economic engine for my city,” Fields says. “We’re in the middle of coal country, and we’ve struggled over the years looking for alternatives. We haven’t had much luck with new industries.”

Work on the trails has been boosted in the last year or so by volunteers from local nonprofit organizations Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Mountain Justice, as well as Job Corps volunteers and even people working off community service sentences. The first trail segment, a 1.82-mile-long novice trail, was dedicated earlier this summer.

The Sugar Maple Trail is three-feet wide and not too steep for beginners. More experienced mountain bikers won’t be left out, though. The system will include both intermediate and expert loops when it is completed.

Fields, a longtime mountain biker, also views the project with an artist’s eye. “Designing a trail that will last is all about water management — getting the water down the hill in ways that won’t erode the trail. This results in very organic shapes,” he says.

“This is a giant step forward for this area,” Fields says. “We’re not known for activism or ecotourism. This is one of our first efforts to use the land for something that’s sustainable.”

Norton council member Mark Caruso agrees about the importance of ecotourism.

“Energy resources will no longer be the go-to industry to bail out communities in economic distress,” he commented. “City council understands that with the proper public resources applied to our natural assets, we can become a destination that will provide tourists with a wide range of activities they will be willing to spend money on.”

The region is spectacular. High Knob is home not just to astonishing views but an incredible array of plants and animals, including the exceptionally rare green salamander and Kirtland’s warbler. The Nature Conservancy calls the region the most biodiverse in the continental United States.

Visitors gather at High Knob Tower

Visitors gather on opening day at the newly rebuilt High Knob Tower. Restoring the southwest Virginia landmark was a collaborative community effort. Photo by Bill Harris, billharr@comcast.net.

Caruso and his wife Carol have so much faith in what the development of High Knob and other tourist resources can do for the local economy, they opened up Pathfinders Outfitters. The shop caters to people coming to enjoy High Knob, seven nearby mountain lakes, two rivers and the many other outdoor attractions.

Caruso said he and his wife want to promote the area’s assets while working to preserve them for future generations.

“I’m looking forward to the day when we have developed an economic balance in our mountains that is diverse, sustainable, smartly maintained, culturally compatible, and provides job opportunities for all who are willing to work,” Caruso says.

The couple has been encouraged by the level of business so far. They are planning to buy more rental boats, expand their shooting sports programs, and introduce wilderness survival and orientation courses.

According to Rita McReynolds, even smaller St. Paul is witnessing an influx of visitors.

“We’re seeing a lot of buzz with people coming into the area from Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama,” she says. “A small lodge, Mountain View Lodge, opened up right here in town, which is something I never thought I’d see.”

McReynolds thinks news reports about the reopening of the High Knob Tower will help even more.

“We’re going to see an explosion of more people coming in,” she says. “That news of the tower was huge. We have wonderful mountains, and we’re becoming a destination.”

Steve Brooks, when director of the Clinch Coalition, helped launch the annual High Knob Naturalist Rally, a daylong event with guided hikes and other activities, now in its eighth year. According to Brooks, there is growing recognition from local politicians and the U.S. Forest Service that tourism has more potential than mining or timbering to improve the local economy.

“Politicians want to bring jobs,” he says. “Tourism seems to be the way to do that now. There’s a lot of public support for a more sustainable approach.”

For a region that has seen more than its share of economic turbulence, hope for a better future seems to have risen from the ashes of High Knob Tower.

“Managed responsibly, we can literally have it all here in our mountains,” Caruso added. “We need to be positive about that possibility.”

Petition Focuses on Va. Regulatory Failures

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

Appalachian Voices recently joined the Sierra Club, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Appalachian Mountain Advocates to file a formal petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleging that a Virginia agency had failed to comply with requirements of the Clean Water Act since 2011. The petition focused on the failure of the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to properly regulate mountaintop removal coal mining under the law.

Citizens groups in West Virginia and Kentucky filed similar petitions with the EPA regarding lack of enforcement by their state agencies.

“Coal companies have been polluting the communities where they operate for decades,” said Erin Savage, Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “Mining laws meant to protect citizens don’t work unless they are enforced by the states. We need EPA to step in to ensure environmental laws are being enforced in southwest Virginia.”

Atlantic Coast Pipeline Proposal Advances

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

By Brian Sewell

Duke Energy, Dominion Resources and other partners are teaming up to build a 550-mile pipeline to better access natural gas produced in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, where fracking has proliferated in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which the companies hope will be in service by 2019, would begin in north-central West Virginia, snake through 10 Virginia Piedmont counties and bisect North Carolina before terminating near the South Carolina border. A lateral extension near the Virginia-North Carolina border would stretch to the coast.

Image Courtesy of Dominion Resources

Image Courtesy of Dominion Resources

If the pipeline is built, Duke’s gas-burning power plants would be the primary customers and capture nearly half of the projected 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas pumped through the pipeline each day.

Dominion Resources shares the majority ownership stake in the pipeline with Duke and will also serve as the lead builder. Dominion began preliminary survey work in May, which created a stir along the proposed route and spawned a movement of concerned landowners and communities months before the plan was officially announced.

In September, a coalition of 22 groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, emerged as the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance with the sole purpose of raising the alarm about the proposed pipeline. The groups say the planned route puts some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the eastern U.S. at risk, such as portions of the George Washington and Monongahela national forests.

The companies claim building the pipeline will create construction jobs and spur industrial development. Governors Pat McCrory of North Carolina, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, and Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia have all heralded the pipeline’s economic potential.

McAuliffe, who has been outspoken in his support for the pipeline while opposing fracking in Virginia, found himself in an awkward spot at the first meeting of the state’s climate change commission on Sept. 10. Claiming the pipeline has “nothing to do with fracking,” McAuliffe later added, “I do not support fracking as governor of the Commonwealth.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline must gain approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state utility commissions, and there are several opportunities for public input during the process.

Virginia Restoration Reroutes Troubled Water

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

By Kimber Ray

In Rockbridge County, Va., construction vehicles this August began carving out nearly half a mile of new streambed for the Maury River. Tree plantings to stabilize the soil are scheduled to begin this fall. This will be the largest stream restoration project completed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which received funding from a federal grant program and a local family farm.

For more than three decades, the Maury River has shifted from its once and future location in reaction to a 1973 dam project. Along the way, the river has claimed more than 15 acres of Echols Farm, depositing massive amounts of sediment into the water and smothering riverbed life. The restored river is expected to improve fish habitat and reduce flooding for miles downstream.

Serving Virginia Parks

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

By Kimber Ray

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation is launching the inaugural year of its Virginia Service and Conservation Corps program. Participants will maintain trails and improve natural habitats at Pocahontas, Leesylvania or Hungry Mother State Park.

Grant funding was provided by AmeriCorps, a national service program with more than 80,000 paid positions. Applications for Virginia’s newest state program will be accepted until Nov. 17 from high school graduates over 17 years old.

To apply to this position or search additional AmeriCorps positions visit americorps.gov

Updates: Stopping the “Tax on the Sun” in Virginia

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014 - posted by hannah

solar on house

As the comment period concludes on Appalachian Power Company’s proposed solar “stand-by” charge and next week’s formal regulatory hearing nears, we’re at full swing in a major push for solar freedom in Virginia.

Concerned ratepayers from Abingdon to Amherst, Botetourt to Blacksburg, Lynchburg and Floyd and all across the state have called for their power company to work with customer-generators and not to interfere with the free market for residential clean energy. Solar installation professionals, local elected officials, and solar homeowners have lent their voices in hope of denying an unfair and punitive new policy.

In local news sources — print and public radio – and in the blogosphere, the word is out: Virginia’s second-largest utility seeks to impose an unfair new fee on customers with solar arrays on their property over 10 kilowatts. Hundreds of Appalachian Power customers have already told the SCC that this fee punishes those who benefit their communities in so many ways by choosing to invest in clean energy for their homes, and it’s clear how this move by the company threatens to turn good candidates for new installations away from going solar.

To protect affordable clean energy options for customers, there is still time to take action and take this effort through the last mile. Come out and be in the room at the public hearing in Richmond at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, September 16 at the State Corporation Commission when citizen comments are heard on the utility’s proposal.

Contact me, your local campaigner Hannah Wiegard, at hannah[at]appvoices.org if you’re an ApCo customer and have questions, need a hand crafting testimony, or would like help arranging transportation to the hearing in downtown Richmond on Tuesday, September 16. See you there!

Five Schools Switch to Landfill Gas Power

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

By Carvan Craft

Five colleges are putting the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” into practice with their initiative to use landfill gas for light and power. Hollins University, Emory & Henry College, Lynchburg College, Randolph College and Sweet Briar College are the first institutions in Virginia on track to meet all of their electricity needs with renewable energy.

Given our annual production of garbage, landfill gas is considered a renewable resource. The gas is approximately half methane and half carbon dioxide, which is harmful when it leaks into the air from a landfill. Methane has a global warming potential that is 23 times greater than carbon dioxide.

Burning landfill gas to generate electricity prevents much of this harmful methane from entering the atmosphere, but whether the gas is a truly clean energy source is disputed because it also produces air pollution.

Robert B. Lambeth Jr., president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, says that one of the college sustainability coordinators approached him with the idea of switching from conventional power to electricity generated by landfill gas. The Council embraced this idea and began working with the five participating colleges on the project in March 2013.

The schools collectively established an agreement with the green energy firm Collegiate Clean Energy — an affiliate of the landfill gas company IGENCO — to purchase their electricity directly from the firm. As part of the agreement, the schools signed a 12-year contract that they expect will save them between $3.2 million and $6.4 million during that period.

The electricity generated from the landfill gas is distributed on the local grid operated by Appalachian Power, and the schools receive Renewable Energy Certificates that represent their direct contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions from conventional electricity. These green energy credits can be put on the market to be bought and traded by other groups seeking to support renewable energy.

Lambeth believes this is an excellent educational opportunity for students to learn more about renewable power companies through potential internships and tours of the landfill gas facility.

Several schools are developing other green initiatives in addition to the methane project. Four of the colleges have solar panels, three use geothermal heat pump systems and Lynchburg College heats water with solar tubes on the roof.

“The colleges obviously have a strong commitment to sustainability, climate control and using renewable energy where possible,” Lambeth says. “So this opportunity fits nicely with the goals of the colleges.”

Southwest Virginia is for (Outdoor) Lovers

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

By Amber Ellis

On Sept. 13-14 in Abingdon, Va., the Appalachian Spring Initiative will host a regional expo to highlight southwest Virginia’s outdoor recreational opportunities.

The initiative, which focuses on community development, has identified eight attractions as pillars of ecotourism in southwestern Virginia, including the New River, High Knob Recreation Area and the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail.

The two-day expo in September centers on these “anchors,” with the first day aiming to connect people with outdoor activities through area businesses and the second day devoted to off-site exploring and guided activities. The expo also offers interactive demos, educational information, live music and local beer. Cost varies based on activity. Visit: swvaoutdoorexpo.com.

New Law Helps Cyclists in Virginia

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

Bicyclists in Virginia can breathe easier now that the minimum distance for passing motorists has increased from two to three feet. At the time of the law’s passage, Virginia was number 18 on the annual ranking of bicycle friendly states by the League of American Bicyclists.

Expecting Justice: The backward priorities of a billionaire coal baron

Thursday, August 7th, 2014 - posted by brian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchased Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courting the Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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