Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Affordable’ energy, yogis + Baptists, & toxic Camp Lejeune

A coal mine tour in Harlan County, Kentucky. Credit: Lyndsey Gilpin

Each time he wants to announce an environmental regulation rollback, President Trump visits West Virginia. The state voted overwhelmingly for him in 2016, the coal industry continues to have a heavy influence on candidates from both parties, and the narrative of the poverty-stricken coal miner is rarely challenged by mainstream media. It’s an easy story to sell.

It was no surprise, then, that Trump flew in this week to announce the “Affordable Clean Energy Rule,” the replacement for former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan that limited emissions on coal-fired power plants. This new rule loosens those regulations, allowing states to decide how to monitor and control emissions from plants and letting them run longer if they become more efficient.

Problem is, this time the response didn’t turn out as well as the administration likely expected it would. Leading up to the announcement, coal industry experts and researchers were realistic about the fact that coal isn’t bouncing back, no matter what the administration says. According to a study from West Virginia University, the recent uptick in coal production won’t last: researchers predict the state’s output will decline 3 percent each year for the next two years, and more dramatically by the end of the 2030s.

Many residents from coal communities were also realistic about the future of coal — and they were given a more of a voice this time around. One miner spoke to the New York Times about how he’s unconvinced coal will come back with these regulations, which he worries will also harm the environment. Several journalists I know were at the rally talking to West Virginians. One person interviewed said he was more curious about renewables. Another told E&E News: “I don’t really know how much he’s done to revive the coal industry but revive faith in the coal industry. I think everyone knows it’s not going to be around here for long, but at least they’re not trying to cancel it out.”

Some utilities aren’t quite convinced by the Environmental Protection Agency’s argument for the rule, either. One Kentucky utility company said it is committed to cutting carbon emissions and is still on track to come close to meeting Obama-era standards. Alabama utilities are touting the reductions they’ve made so far and many don’t anticipate much of a change to their operations.

What will change is the impact on public health. According to the EPA’s own analysisreleased this week, the new rule could lead to up to 1,400 premature deaths every year by 2030 from particulate matter released from the plants that is linked to heart and lung disease, missed school days for students, and up to 15,000 cases of upper respiratory problems. More EPA data shows that the negative impacts will hit low-income and minority communities the hardest.

The Clean Power Plan never went into full effect because 24 states sued over it and the Supreme Court put a stay on it in 2016. The continual decline of coal and the shuttering of coal-fired plants is largely because of global market forces and utilities turning to cheap natural gas and renewables. While people who once relied on well-paying mining jobs are seeing the potential benefits of these changes, the shift away from coal is incredibly hard on them.

As InsideClimate News reported recently, power bills in the region are skyrocketing because many utilities continue to invest in coal when it’s uneconomical. As coal jobs have declined, so too has per capita income, according to a recent report from the Appalachian Regional Commission. For instance, in Harlan County, Kentucky, per capita market income fell from $13,053 in 2015 to $12,579 in 2016. And yet, there’s still no industry to replace coal on a large scale. Although grassroots organizers have been advocating for better-paying, long-term, healthier jobs for decades, the federal government and many state lawmakers still push pipelines and prisons, which are industries that will not lead to sustainable, just economies.

It has been heartening to see some media outlets take all this into consideration when reporting this week. By focusing less on desperation and providing more context and nuance, we build more trust — and that’s something we are sorely in need of.

Stories worth your time

Sunny Southern states have huge solar potential. But there’s a tug of war between utilities and solar advocates that is blocking low- and middle-income households from using rooftop solar. By looking at solar fees Alabama Power imposes on its rooftop solar customers, Grist examines the region’s renewable energy landscape.

The Memphis Flyer takes an in-depth look at the history of environmental justice battles in Memphis and how local activists have been working for years to get toxic sites cleaned up.

A protest movement against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been building for years in Buckingham County, Virginia, where a compressor station is set to be built in a historic black community. The Washington Post reports on how Baptists and the yoga community are working together to stop construction for good.

For Pacific Standard, a writer goes back after 30 years to visit her hometown of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a Marine Corps base where “from the 1950s until at least 1985, the drinking water was contaminated with toxic chemicals at levels 240 to 3400 times higher than what is permitted by safety standards.”

News flying under the radar

Westinghouse Electric Company, which owns a nuclear fuel factory in South Carolina that leaked uranium for years, has no plans to clean it up for 40 more despite evidence the toxins will spread into water sources.

There’s a lot of focus on the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines in Appalachia, but not much anymore on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, which is part of a network of pipelines owned by Energy Transfer Partners (owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline). The Bayou Bridge has been approved at the state and federal level, but there’s a dedicated group of protesters who aren’t giving up.

The Army Corps of Engineers endorsed a plan to dredge and deepen the main channel of the Mississippi River by 5 feet from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s a rise of young organizers in the South, led by groups like Southerners on New Ground, an organization defending LGBTQ+ people of color in rural areas.

Trash and debris pile up every year at the dam on Fishtrap Lake, which is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. Residents say it’s never cleaned up, and it’s impacting home values and tourism.