Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Polluted air, solar co-ops, & sky-high power bills

The sky was hanging low and dark over Louisville this morning. It rained for nearly a full day, and the city felt scrunched between rolling clouds and flooded streets.

Just a few days ago in Knoxville, though, the oppressive heat and high pollen levels forced me to use my inhaler a few times so I could breathe more deeply.

This past weekend, I watched as my friends out West posted on social media about the hazy, thick, dangerous smoke from the intense wildfires, sharing photos of an apocalyptic grayish pink sky. People in Florida wrote about the toxic red tide that’s been hanging out along the coast, causing massive marine life die-offs and respiratory problems in humans.

All summer, I’ve been reading about black lung disease — the fatal respiratory disease caused by inhaling coal dust that makes it difficult to breathe and prevents oxygen from reaching the blood — in Central Appalachia, which now affects 1 in 5 veteran coal miners.

We’re surrounded by stories about pollution and our dwindling supply of clean air. It’s suffocating, both literally and figuratively.

New research shows the oppressive heat will continue: this year is on track to be the hotteston record, and marine heat waves roughly doubled from 1982 to 2016. Wildfires and extreme rain events are getting more intense and frequent.

Industry interests are working to keep the status quo despite evidence that it’s harming humans, animals, land, and water. The National Mining Association has been circulating a misleading and inaccurate document to Congress that says black lung disease is in decline and the Black Lung Trust Fund — a fund coal companies pay into to help miners with the disease pay for medical costs — is financially healthy. In reality, the trust fund is in deficit and the tax on coal companies is set for a 55 percent cut at the end of this year if Congress doesn’t act. Meanwhile, doctors and researchers are grappling with an alarming resurgence in the disease.

This week, a report from the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental group, revealed that petrochemical companies and other industrial facilities severely underreported their air pollution post-Hurricane Harvey — by 1.7 million pounds, to be exact — after the Texas governor suspended environmental reporting rules. An investigation by Climate Home found that 200 abandoned and 300 active coal mines contribute a tenth of U.S. methane emissions. One of the biggest contributors is in West Virginia.

The silver lining, it seems, is that it’s becoming more clear how intertwined public health is with climate change, energy, and environment. For so long, people have discussed these topics separately in journalism, academia, and everyday conversations. That’s changing, though. Looking through the lens of public health is often a less politicized, more urgent and effective way to address these issues. I’ve seen it in the evolution of my own reporting: the Southerly series on tropical diseases in the rural South, stories on the lack of clean water in Appalachia, a piece on health risks from offshore drilling near the Atlantic Coast.

As awareness grows, clouds start to clear. Towns in Appalachia are making resolutions that call on Congress to fund black lung benefits; researchers are working tirelessly to come up with solutions to stop red tides; people from the arid West to the swampy South are coming to terms with how to adapt their lives to climate change. When it starts getting hard to breathe, we notice how much we need air — and we’ll do anything to get it.

Stories worth your time

Utilities in Appalachia continue to invest in uneconomical coal-fired power plants, which is causing customers’ electricity bills to skyrocket. InsideClimate News has an in-depth look at why people in Eastern Kentucky are paying hundreds of dollars for power a month.

Miami Herald reader asked the newspaper how the state can address the effects of climate change on communities of color, so they had experts discuss the realities of climate gentrification: “That will be a crisis ‘way before sea level rise hits,’ said Florida International University Professor Hugh Gladwin, who studies climate gentrification in the area. ‘It’s like we’re losing what we need to keep going, which is a workforce that can stay here.'”

An investigation by ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail showed that over the past two years, federal and state agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws have “moved repeatedly to clear roadblocks and expedite the pipeline, even changing the rules at times to ease the project’s approvals.” One example: in West Virginia, state regulators worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rewrite rules for how long pipeline construction could block the flow of rivers.

News flying under the radar

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for seven southwestern counties over the red tide.

New research suggests sea level rise will threaten underground internet cables in major coastal cities, including New Orleans and Miami.

The number of “disease danger days” for high numbers of mosquitoes is increasing around the U.S. Bluefield, Virginia is one of the top ten cities with the biggest change in disease danger days since 1970.

Florida residents are becoming increasingly interested in solar. Another community just launched a solar cooperative; it’s number 35 in the state.

Federal regulators halted work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but Dominion Energy is urging them to allow construction on portions of it while they wait for permits.