Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Clean Power Plan reactions, giant frogs, & sulfuric acid

Quite a few state lawmakers in the South are reveling in President Donald Trump’s new executive order that quashes the Clean Power Plan. Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia Attorney General, called it a “monumental victory” that will bring back coal jobs. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said states can now seek a plan that “protects the environment, not push the agenda of a liberal few.” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall applauded the order and called Obama’s plan an “unlawful, job-killing extension.”

The Clean Power Plan was the Obama administration’s most critical environmental policy, requiring carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired electric power plants to be cut by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Immediately, 24 states and some state agencies sued, saying it was an illegal attack on the coal industry. The lawsuit included all Southern states except for Tennessee and Virginia.

Despite fighting it tooth and nail, a 2015 analysis found that 21 of the states suing to block the Clean Power Plan were on track to meet the 2024 targets they found so burdensome. Most of the rest were on track for 2030. In the South, every state but Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas were reducing carbon emissions at that steady pace. Another 2015 study estimated that carbon standards would help most states in the South avoid hundreds of premature deaths per year. Even though the Trump administration is relying on a coal industry-backed study that cites huge electricity price spikes, other research showed economic benefits and lower electricity rates.

Seeing these benefits, many other states in the region — even ones that sued — aren’t so happy about Trump’s executive order. Earlier this year, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality withdrew from the Clean Power Plan lawsuit. In Florida and Virginia, attorneys general opposed the executive order. Atlanta officials vowed to move forward with climate action. In South Carolina, which could have seen a $1 billion economic boost from the Clean Power Plan, renewable energy advocates are pushing back against the order. Former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis is fighting his party’s notion that repealing the plan will bring back coal and he’s also promoting a carbon tax.

A day or so after Trump was elected, I sat in a newsroom full of environmental journalists talking about the possible outcomes for the EPA. This was before Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency 14 times, was officially tasked with leading it; before most people guessed minor regulations like stream protection would be overturned; before mentions of “climate change” were deleted off government websites and federal employees went rogue. I remember we hypothesized the Clean Power Plan would dissolve, joked that the EPA might be dismantled. However far-fetched those ideas seemed before, in that moment we knew certain lawmakers would push their own world of false truths, and that the stories we thought we’d write dissecting climate agreements or renewable energy plans or new regulations were rendered obsolete. It was surreal.

As I’ve mentioned in this newsletter before, rolling back climate action is out of step with the 70 percent of Americans who believe global warming is real and the 53 percent who believe it is caused by human activity. Two-thirds want carbon emissions cut and renewable energy funded. We forget sometimes that, despite headlines and tweets and brash comments from attorneys general, these rollbacks are surreal for most people. Even in coal country. Even in the deep South.

Stories worth your time

Giant poisonous, carnivorous, fast-breeding cane toads are overtaking south Florida. The invasive species may pose an ecological disaster for the state, according to this Outside Magazine story, which is chock-full of gross, delightful tales of these strange creatures. Take this one: “Cinnamon Mittan, a graduate student who has done field work on cane toads, told me that once, behind a Home Depot in Florida City, she saw a cane toad sitting in a pizza box and eating the cheese off a slice.”

You’re probably already halfway through S-Town, but if not, give it a listen. The new podcast by the creators of Serial and This American Life follows a murder mystery in Woodstock, Alabama, told through an oddly endearing man named John B. McLemore. The first episode is mostly McLemore explaining to host Brian Reed why he thinks Woodstock is “Shittown,” lamenting climate change deniers, pollution, and the economy, but justifying why he can’t just pick up and leave. “You’re in a region where stuff happens, and you can’t help it,” he said.

For more Southern twang, listen to this Bitter Southerner podcast episode by Nicole Taylor. She traces the 1964 murder of Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn by the KKK in her hometown of Athens, Georgia, just after the Civil Rights Act was passed — and why, decades later, race relations haven’t changed as much as they should have.

I talked last week about cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission. Ohio Valley Resource offers a look at the direct impacts of that, like ending one program that teaches people coding so they can get hired at tech companies, and another that teaches people skills like carpentry and solar installment.

News flying under the radar

From July 2015 to July 2016, Nashville grew by 100 people per day. It grew that much between 2014 and 2015, too. Data shows that in the last six years, the overall population has jumped by 11.6 percent.

Last week, there were two coal slurry spills in one day in Boone County, West Virginia. One was 30 gallons a minute, but it wasn’t enough to trigger the alarm. The spills were just upstream from drinking water intakes for several cities.

Wildfire activity in Florida is at its highest level since 2011 and already higher than 2016 because of a prolonged drought. Fifty-nine wildfires have been recorded this year in the Everglades District, compared to 17 total last year. Statewide, more than 60 burned earlier this week.

I missed this story from early March: the EPA took control of a wastewater treatment facility in Pascagoula, Alabama and is now “processing 2 million gallons of highly acidic, slightly radioactive, liquid waste a day.” The facility used to produce fertilizer and sulfuric acid, and now 700 million gallons of contaminated wastewater remains onsite.