Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Deregulation, energy poverty, & toxic beads

Just over a year ago, the California Coastal Commission — a state agency that has for 45 years fiercely guarded the California coastline from development and ensured it stays accessible for everyone — fired its executive director of five years, Charles Lester. Some of the commissioners blamed his poor management skills, but others, as well as many former commissioners and Lester himself, said it was because industry-friendly members of the agency wanted to develop more of the shoreline.

Before the decision was made, however, there was a public hearing for Lester. I watched it live on the internet. Nearly a thousand people — representatives from indigenous communities, organizations for underserved Hispanic populations, former commissioners, even a resort executive — showed up to voice their support for him and their passion for the pristine coastline. The hearing lasted seven hours. But the commission voted to get rid of him anyway, and declined to explain it to the public.

The memory of that day, and the reaction from Californians, came back to me this week when I learned the Kentucky legislature moved to abolish the state’s Environmental Quality Commission, an agency that, in theory, holds public hearings across the state to hear opinions on everything from landfill regulations to energy projects and produces public reports about land and water quality. The commission is no longer of use, lawmakers said, because it hasn’t written those reports or reviewed regulations in 15 to 20 years.

Several former commissioners told me it was gutted years ago, starting under Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. In the 1990s, commissioners traveled around the state to hold well-attended forums, and even published a State of the Environment report in 2001. But as the years passed, they weren’t given a budget to do reports, surveys, or travel. When Gov. Matt Bevin took office last year, he fired the director, a longtime environmental justice advocate. She said her budget had already been cut dramatically; in 2008, there were four employees, but by 2016, it was just her and a part-time worker. According to the Courier-Journal, at least five times in the last 15 years, the commission was given no money in the state budget.

Kentucky is not alone in trying to overhaul its environmental quality standards and practices. New bills in Mississippi would cut funding to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which has reportedly gotten less money than it was supposed to in previous years; last year, Florida’s Environmental Regulation Commission, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, voted to increase the amount of chemicals in drinking water; Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management, which oversees its commission, had funding slashed in 2016.

The fact is, in Kentucky and every other Southern state that relies so heavily on fossil fuels, 1,000 people probably won’t ever show up to defend these agencies or their missions. They never have, which made it easy for lawmakers to slowly chip away at their ability to function. As we speculate what will happen to the EPA — if it will be gutted, rendered obsolete, deregulated — these crumbling state commissions are a searing reminder that everything starts from the ground up.

Stories worth your time

Atlas Obscura interviewed a black, female Appalachian Trail thru-hiker about what it’s like to break into a club that’s 75 percent male and mostly white. She talks about meeting other hikers, seeing her fair share of Confederate flags, and the trials of the trail: “The hardest thing, though—holy shit, climate change. People were like, how were your feet? Why don’t you ask me about hiking in the mid-Atlantic during the hottest July ever recorded? Because there was no water. There was no water anywhere.”

The fabric industry in Catawba County, North Carolina, decimated by offshoring, is making a high-tech comeback. Undark traces the area’s history of textiles and the town’s potential economic revival.

Forgive me for sharing Pacific Standard articles three weeks in a row, but they’re covering this region well. This piece dives into why the South, the fastest growing region in the country, has the highest rates of energy poverty. The writer zeroes in on Memphis, Tennessee to illustrate the problems.

Ensia has a new multimedia platform and the first project examines how environmental reporters often cover disasters — like Hurricane Katrina or toxic algae in Lake Erie — years in advance, but the public usually doesn’t listen.

News flying under the radar

Happy Mardis Gras! Kind of. According to The Conversation, beads collected from New Orleans parades have toxic levels of lead, bromine, arsenic, phthalate plasticizers, halogens, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and chlorine. Someone even “mapped the levels of lead in various parts of the city, and discovered that the majority of lead in the soil is located directly alongside the Mardi Gras parade routes.”

A coal miner was killed in a West Virginia mine accident. The company, Southern Coal, is owned by the state’s new governor Jim Justice, who recently turned over operations to his son.

The same chemical nerve agent used to kill the half-brother of Kim Jong Un is stored in central Kentucky. The Blue Grass Army Depot is the only place in the country where it’s stockpiled.

More pipeline news: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released a draft environmental impact statement for the Mountaineer XPress Pipeline, which would run through West Virginia, and the Gulf XPress project, which would build gas compressor stations in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.

The South produces virtually no wind energy because of the slow breezes, dense forests, and resistant lawmakers. However, a new North Carolina wind farm may be a tipping point for renewables in the region.