Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Former Freedom Executives Indicted for Elk River Chemical Spill

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Kimber Ray

Federal prosecutors in December charged the now-bankrupt Freedom Industries and six former employees for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in relatation to the January 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the water of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents.

The FBI released supporting documents showing that at least a decade before the spill, Freedom was warned of problems at the Elk River site such as critical deficiencies with the tank and containment wall that allowed chemicals to seep into the river. The agency also reports that company expenditures were almost exclusively devoted to projects that would increase revenue, rather than compliance with environmental regulations.

Former Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces additional fraud charges related to the company’s bankruptcy filing the month of the spill. According to these charges, Southern, a company executive since 2009, falsely stated under oath to have assumed leadership with the company only days before the spill in order to avoid blame and protect his assets from lawsuits.

In response to the spill, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill to create the nation’s first requirement for inspection of aboveground storage tanks, according to National Geographic. As of mid-January, inspection certifications required for approximately 20,000 of the state’s more than 47,000 aboveground tanks were not submitted by the Jan. 1 deadline and, of those submitted, nearly 1,100 did not meet new safety requirements.

Industry lobby groups have tried to weaken the new chemical safety bill, in one instance proposing changes that would exclude thousand of tanks near drinking water sources from new inspection and safety standards.

Such changes could provide amnesty to Lexycon, a company created by former Freedom executives three months after the spill. The new company has already been cited for charges such as improper storage of MCHM — the chemical associated with the notorious spill — and releasing chemicals into waterways without a permit. No fines have been issued.

WV Repeals Changes to Climate Science Standards

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Chris Robey

Following a heated public rebuke, the West Virginia Board of Education reversed its decision to alter newly proposed national K-12 science education standards. The board’s alterations would have required West Virginia teachers to frame human-caused climate change as a debate rather than an accepted body of evidence.

Teachers and environmental groups denounced the alterations as an attempt to undermine peer-reviewed evidence of climate change.

The newly restored standards will be open for public comment until mid-February. In March, the board will vote on final standards for the 2016-17 school year. If adopted, the standards will mark the first time West Virginia students are required to study evidence supporting human-caused climate change.

The reversal comes just days after the conservation group, Friends of the Blackwater, released a report highlighting rising temperatures in the state’s Allegheny Highlands region. View the report, titled “On the Chopping Block,” at alleghenyclimate.org

Alpha Agrees to Water Pollution Settlement

Monday, February 16th, 2015 - posted by molly

Alpha Natural Resources agreed to a settlement in a 2012 lawsuit, brought by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, regarding high levels of conductivity found in streams at two of its mountaintop removal mining complexes in West Virginia.

The settlement includes no monetary penalties but would require Alpha to reduce pollution so that the streams either meet stricter requirements than set by state regulators or comply with a measure of conductivity designed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

West Virginia Legislative Maneuvers Disregard Water Quality

Monday, February 16th, 2015 - posted by molly

The West Virginia legislature has introduced two new bills that would loosen coal mining rules. If passed, the legislation would undermine the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s water quality standards for coal mining permits, resulting in far-reaching impacts on the state’s waterways.

Under the bills, mining companies would be shielded from many citizen lawsuits regarding water quality, including litigation based on selenium violations. These types of lawsuits have been successful in recent years.

West Virginia Repeals “Alternative” Energy Law

Monday, February 16th, 2015 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill to repeal the state’s Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, a law ostensibly aimed at promoting adoption of renewable sources.

In the opening days of the 2015 legislative session, West Virginia legislators moved quickly to dismantle the standard, arguing that they were standing up for the state’s weakened coal industry by putting clean energy on the chopping block. But the law has had a negligible effect since it was passed in 2009. A broad interpretation of what constitutes “alternative” energy under the law has allowed West Virginia’s largest utilities to easily meet the law’s requirements by relying on coal and natural gas without adding new solar or wind capacity.

Even though the West Virginia Coal Association helped craft the standard, it now supports repeal, citing regulatory and legal pressure on the coal industry.

Clean energy advocates reacted with indifference, since the doomed law did little to expand renewable generation, but they say there is a silver lining: lawmakers approved an amendment to the bill that allows West Virginians who have solar panels to continue receiving credit for the excess electricity they generate and put back into the grid.

Editor’s note: The online text of this article is longer than the print version.

West Virginia flunks climate change class

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 - posted by cat

climate change on blackboard The Board of Education in West Virginia may be on to something when it comes to the thorny problem of worldwide climate change: Scrub it for the K-12 curriculum.

Last fall, the board was set to adopt new science-teaching standards based on a national blueprint of voluntary and internationally-recognized benchmarks, developed by 26 states in conjunction with such tree-hugger bastions as the National Research Council, National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The standards require students to learn about the evidence for human-driven climate change.

But in December, as reported by Ryan Quinn of the Charleston Gazette, the board changed the standards to more or less eliminate references to human causes of climate change — to whit, the burning of fossil fuels — largely at the behest of a board member. Quinn reported that Wade Linger doesn’t believe human-driven global warming is a “foregone conclusion.”

Quinn also noted:

State school board member Tom Campbell said that in response to the climate change language, Linger brought up concerns about political views being taught in classrooms during an open school board meeting in Mingo County in November. Campbell said he shared those concerns.
“Let’s not use unproven theories,” said Campbell, a former House of Delegates education chairman. “Let’s stick to the facts.”

Technically all theories could be considered unproven — many, like the theory of gravitation or plate tectonics, are overwhelmingly accepted by both scientists and the public based on a bevy of evidence. Even other publicly controversial ones, like evolution, are still overwhelmingly accepted by scientists.

When asked why climate change was the particular “unproven science” that he and Linger were concerned about, Campbell responded that “West Virginia coal in particular has been taking on unfair negativity from certain groups.” He also noted the coal industry provides much money to the state’s education system.

The two board members might have been reading from a page in The Heartland Institute’s playbook. In 2012, the national conservative think-tank was cooking up plans to create a curriculum promoting the idea that the human role in contributing to climate change is “a major scientific controversy” (notwithstanding that some 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing and that human activity is a significant cause).

The West Virginia Board of Education’s action has precipitated quite the kerfuffle in the Mountain State. Groups who oppose the changes to the science standard are now speaking out, and have started a petition to compel the board to rescind the changes.

“When it comes to the accuracy of peer-reviewed science, it is important to teach actual science and not theories that are based on the politics of the coal industry,” said Lisa Hoyos — director and co-founder of Climate Parents, a national nonprofit with members in all 50 states, including 200 in West Virginia. Hoyos said group members would be attending future meetings of the education board.

Photo by BigStockPhoto.com

Crowdfunding Solar in West Virginia

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

In a state known for coal, solar energy emerges through a grassroots effort

By Eliza Laubach
Dan Conant affectionately calls his first successes cutting solar installation costs “barn raisings.” After years of political organizing in college and shortly after, he wanted to use community organizing strategies for solar power.

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“Community-supported solar builds awareness about where electricity comes from,” says Than Hitt, center, holding his daughter Hazel at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Sheperdstown Presbyterian Church’s solar array. Photo by Mary Anne Hitt.

Policies that have helped to nurture the solar industry, such as affordable leasing options, tax credits and requirements for utilities to purchase renewable energy credits aren’t offered in his home state of West Virginia.

“I was trying to move back home, but there weren’t any jobs available at that point,” says Conant. He instead worked in Virginia and Vermont, helping pioneer innovative neighborhood-scale methods for going solar. He found ways to lower prohibitive upfront costs, which he describes as an effort to “crack the code for personal financing.”

As he gained a deeper understanding of solar financing, Conant saw how difficult it is for nonprofits and municipal organizations to buy solar panels, especially in West Virginia. Nonprofits don’t receive a tax credit, government entities are unable to take out loans, and commercial buildings receive less compensation than homeowners do for surplus power generated by their solar panels. After researching how to bring solar to these community groups with a model that could be duplicated in any state, he created Solar Holler.

The solar financing project raises funds to place solar panels on nonprofit or municipal buildings. The process mirrors crowdfunding, which depends on donations from interested parties, usually solicited online. But crowdfunding is less practical among small communities and low-income residents, so Conant brainstormed an alternative revenue stream.

He partnered with Mosaic Power, a company that pays homeowners for their hot water heater to be hooked up to Mosaic’s remote system. Creating a smart grid, Mosaic can then turn the hot water heater on and off in response to electricity demand. The utility pays Mosaic Power for helping them use electricity more efficiently, and the profit is transferred back to the homeowner through a $100 yearly payment. Residents can sign up for Mosaic’s program through Solar Holler, pledging their return to help fund a solar installation on a community building.

An investor will buy the solar panels after enough residents of a community pledge their revenue to a Solar Holler project to guarantee the investor a return. The pledged hot water heater payments will cycle to other Solar Holler projects once the initial project is paid off. “We’re using energy efficiency to fund the solar,” Conant says.

Conant launched the pilot project in his hometown at the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. The congregation considered solar in the past but could not afford it. Than Hitt, church member and community organizer, spent three years working with the congregation and Shepherdstown community. He provided the initial investment in the solar panels. “Self-reliance is a big thing in West Virginia and we’re tapping into that,” says Hitt.

Pastor Randy Tremba set up a table by the church’s hot water heater for people to sign up for the Mosaic Power program in April. “A trusted community leader is a crucial ally,” he adds. Within three months, enough people signed up for the program to guarantee the solar installation.

Main story_SPC Installation

Mountainview Solar crew members install the solar panels. Photo by Dan Conant.

With 100 people signing on to participate, plus the sale of renewable energy credits to various Pennsylvania utilities, the project quickly moved forward. Mountainview Solar, a local solar contractor, installed a 16.2-kilowatt solar array on the church this past August, providing about 40 percent of the church’s electricity. The Shepherdstown Elementary School principal brought the fourth and fifth grade classes to the ribbon-cutting ceremony and pledged to incorporate solar energy into the educational curriculums. “I think it’s the start of something big,” says Conant.

Solar Holler’s goal is to have a project in each of West Virginia’s 55 counties within the next five years. Two more projects are currently underway: the city hall in Lewisburg and the public library in Harpers Ferry, which achieved its quota for Mosaic Power sign-ups in mid-November.

Conant sees the importance in diversifying the economy of a state that has largely been powered by coal extraction. “We can still be an energy state, we just need to stop thinking of ourselves as a coal state,” he says. Ninety-six percent of West Virginia’s energy comes from coal, and mining has a continued legacy of destructive health, environmental and financial impacts. “Solar in West Virginia is more powerful than anywhere else in the country,” says Conant.

Visit SolarHoller.org to learn more.

Stars Twinkle in Calhoun County

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

By Barbara Musumarra

In West Virginia’s rural Calhoun County, which boasts some of the darkest skies across the eastern United States, a proposed starpark will allow professional and amateur astronomers to study the night sky with minimal light pollution.

Although locals have long appreciated the unobstructed views provided by the Calhoun County Park’s mountain vantage point, the park is relatively unknown to professional stargazers. When the Appalachian Regional Commission provided funding for the University of Knoxville in 2010 to help five underdeveloped counties, locals began to evaluate how they could use the park to encourage tourism. University researchers collected 300 survey responses from amateur astronomers reflecting interest in the endeavor.

Many gathered at the proposed starpark site in late September to evaluate the potential of upgrading the park to meet requirements for the International Dark Sky Association’s gold rating. Planned improvements include installing restrooms and electric power, which is necessary for professional, high-powered telescopes.

“Job creation is a goal of the project,” states Dr. Tim Ezzell, lead researcher for the initiative and director of the Community Partnership Center at the University of Knoxville. Plans to include community members in local workforce development programs are in the works.

“It’s a fascinating opportunity for a really poor rural county off the beaten path,” says Calhoun County official Bob Weaver. Over the years, Weaver has observed astronomers filtering in by the thousands, a trend he hopes will continue to bolster the community’s tourism.

Scant Action One Year After Elk River Chemical Spill

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

By Kimber Ray

Roughly one year after a coal-processing chemical spill by Freedom Industries contaminated the drinking water of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents, cleanup of the site remains incomplete and disciplinary and preventative action by state and federal officials has been minimal. Even in November, a poll by local news station WSAZ found that only 50 percent of affected residents were drinking their tap water, compared to 81 percent before the spill.

Eight days after the spill, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy and, by April, company executives registered an identical company, Lexycon LLC, which in May was granted approval to purchase former Freedom properties.

Federal fines against Freedom total $11,000, and a $3 million settlement between Freedom Industries and residents affected by the spill was finalized in September using money from the company’s insurance policy. With the added expense of almost $2 million in legal fees, Freedom claims to now lack capacity to fund a full cleanup of the spill site.

A proposed agreement with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection this November would lessen Freedom’s cleanup responsibility. Under existing orders from the agency, the company must remove all detectable contamination from the spill site but, if allowed to enter the agency’s voluntary toxic cleanup program, cleanup levels can be based on potential risks of human exposure. This risk is disputed due to a lack of scientific studies on health effects of the spill chemicals. Public comments on the proposal will be accepted until Dec. 17.

West Virginia American Water, the private water utility which serves residents affected by the spill, is under investigation by state authorities for potentially allowing customers to drink contaminated water due to inadequate emergency planning and response. Fourteen businesses and individuals have sued the utility and additional companies connected to the spill, including the chemical manufacturer, and a hearing is scheduled for Sept. 15, 2015. A federal grand jury investigation against Freedom Industries is ongoing.

WV Wetlands Welcome Extra Funding

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

By Barbara Musumarra

West Virginia wetlands received a flood of good fortune, thanks to a $700,000 grant awarded to the state Department of Natural Resources this October.

The Wetland Program Development Grant, given by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, funds projects to evaluate and improve wetland health. Of the six grant recipients in the Mid-Atlantic, the West Virginia environmental agency received the largest sum, and aims to use the money to develop a protocol for assessing wetland health, and to support protection and restoration efforts.