Electrifying Democracy in Rural America

Electrifying Democracy in Rural America

This is the sixth installment of Barn Raiser’s 2024 election coverage series “Charting a Path of Rural Progress,” which features interviews with rural policy experts and organizers who came together in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2023 to forge a rural policy platform on which candidates can run—and to which voters can hold their elected leaders accountable. The platform that grew out of that Omaha meeting, A Roadmap for Rural Progress: 2023 Rural Policy Action Report, released last October, details 27 legislative priorities for rural and small town America, based on legislation that has already been introduced in Congress.

Erik Hatlestad, 33, works on rural energy issues with the Minnesota nonprofit CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) as their Energy Democracy Program Director. Founded in 1992, CURE describes itself as a rural-focused environmental group “rooted in the movement for rural social justice.” The group’s 12 employees are scattered in small towns across the state.

Hatlestad is currently on a six-month stint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) as a Clean Energy Benefits Advisor, where he leads the Empowering Rural America (New ERA) program, a historic investment in rural electrification that is based, in part, on Hatlestad’s 2019 report, “Rural Electrification 2.0: The Transition to a Clean Energy Economy,” which outlines the role of rural electric cooperatives in the transition to clean energy in rural America.

Hatlestad, grew up with two brothers on a small family farm, growing corn and soybeans, about 10 miles from New London, Minnesota (population 1,252), in Kandiyohi County, where he now lives.

Erik Hatlestad holds the first dollar earned by the New London Food Co-op in New London, Minnesota.

How did you get into rural political activism?

I grew up shortly after the farm crisis of the 1970s and 80s, which shaped the hollowing out of rural communities that we’re still seeing today. We saw the end of several of our local farm cooperatives in New London and western Minnesota, because all of the members had been driven out of business.

Fighting for rural communities to regain control over their own future—a future that has been taken from them by exploitative markets and large agribusiness—is  personally important to me. And I like to continue that historic legacy of the agrarian movement from yesteryear.

I’m very, very committed to rural democracy and building democratic solutions for small towns. I’m involved with a number of community projects in New London I’ve helped run the community theater and cocktail bar, and just helped opened a food cooperative, which will be the first grocery store in our town for the last 15 years. I serve on a lot of different boards and am very involved with Farmers Union and was until recently on the board of the city council.

How does the Rural Policy Action Report address the challenges rural America faces?

The biggest problem is that rural America has faced underinvestment and disinvestment for so long.

In previous decades, we had strong rural social movements that fought for these big investments, like the original Rural Electrification Act and the New Deal, and all of these incredible programs that helped make rural America what it is—or what people like to think they remember it as. Those social movements and organizations were crushed during the 1980s farm crisis and as a part of deindustrialization, such as with NAFTA and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, and the right-wing attack on organized labor. As a result, rural social movements haven’t had the political strength to put forward the alternative solutions that were historically offered to rural people to win new investments in their communities.

What the Rural Democracy Initiative—the group that sponsored the Omaha summit out of which came the Rural Policy Action Report—has done is bring momentum back to rural social movements by offering an alternative to the disinvestment and the race to the bottom and what has been the essential hollowing out of rural communities.

The Rural Policy Action Summit was held in Omaha, Nebraska, which is where the Populist Party held its first convention back in 1892. Is that ancient history?

For all of us who are involved in creating a progressive future for rural America, there isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t think about these historic social movements and what they were able to accomplish in the same communities we live in today.

For those of us in rural Minnesota and the Dakotas, we love to think about the Nonpartisan League and the Farmer-Labor Party and how they transformed the states by gaining political power—creating state grain elevators, and in North Dakota, creating the country’s only state-owned bank. And the incredible progress that was made by farmer labor governors in Minnesota.

There’s a common thread among all of them, starting back with National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry beginning in 1867 and flowing into movements that would become the Populist Party [People’s Party] and the Progressive Party. We look to them as inspiration for what we’re doing today.

The co-operative movement was really born in Minnesota. The congressman (Andrew Volstead) who co-wrote the Capper Volstead Act, which legalized co-ops in 1922, was from Granite Falls, Minnesota. Some people call it the Magna Carta of cooperatives in the U.S. The first electric co-op in the country was the Stony Run Light and Power Company, which was just south of Granite Falls, near CURE’s offices. It’s a history that is barely outside of living memory, but it’s certainly something that we think about on a daily basis.

How would a transition to clean energy affect rural communities and the rural electrical cooperatives of which 42 million Americans are members of?

A few years ago, I was one of the authors of a white paper called Rural Electrification 2.0, where we took a look at the historic and systemic barriers holding up the clean energy transition in electric cooperatives and we made some of the policy recommendations in that report.

Erik Hatlestad gives a presentation at a brewery in New London, Minnesota, which is releasing Root Down, a hybrid ale wheat beer made with kernza, a type of perennial wheat.

Since then, we have been working to build support for an investment in rural electrification to clear the way for the clean energy transition, and part of that work has been through the Rural Policy Summit in Omaha and the resulting Rural Policy Action Report.

Many organizations, including National Farmers Union, Sierra Club and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association themselves have all come around to the concepts that we put forth in Rural Electrification 2.0. Reinvestment in rural electric co-ops was one of the key programs that the Biden administration listed in their rural investments portfolio when they took office. Our programs made it through every single edition of Build Back Better and were eventually passed in the Inflation Reduction Act and the implementation process has begun over the past year. Those programs are now known as Empowering Rural America, or New ERA, and the Powering Affordable Clean Energy Program, or PACE.

How accessible is the program? I heard that the application process can be a daunting for individual rural electric cooperatives.

There is an urgent need to get the program money out the door before potential cuts could be made to the program by Congress. The U.S. hasn’t done a major investment in rural electrification like this since the 1930s. So co-op staff and board members and the communities themselves aren’t accustomed to thinking as big as they’ve been given the opportunity to now. It has been problematic for rural utilities and rural communities to pursue federal grants at the same level as communities that are better resourced.

Having spent some time in small town government on city council myself, I understand how staff are already overworked and underpaid. It’s tough to ask people in similar positions, whether it’s an electric co-op or a small town team, to take on a robust federal grant making process.

So there are some challenges. But the response that co-ops gave to these programs is overwhelming. The programs have received over 140 applications from the 40 states, and there are about 900 rural electric co-ops, and they are only active in 46 states. But a number of these applications represent coalitions of co-ops or generation transmission co-ops applying on behalf of their distribution members. So we can credibly say that half of all co-ops in the country showed interest in this program.

You dated the start of the rural decline back to the farm crisis of the 1970s and 80s. Why do you date it back to then? Some people say it begins back with Earl Butz in the early 1970s when he was secretary of agriculture under Nixon and told farmers to “get big or get out.”

I would generally agree that it started with Butz and agribusiness companies and the fertilizer industry essentially concluding that the best way to protect their own profitability was to make sure that farms got bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s a historic arc similar to the attack on organized labor that happened over the last half of the 20th century, which you could summarize that as being a coordinated attack on the New Deal coalition by business interests and their political allies.

It started with Butz and the encouragement of bigger and bigger farms and culminated in the 1970s and 80s with the farm crisis, and dealt one of the finishing blows to the agricultural system of family farming, which had been a solid political block organized around the co-operative principles of the cooperative movement. You see similar kind of tropes play out with the deindustrialization in the Rust Belt, the consolidation of bigger businesses and the promotion of free trade.

Did you did your county vote for Donald Trump?

Oh, yes.

How do you think about bridging political divides within your county and rural America in general?

You don’t bridge some of those divides, you provide an alternative. For too long, people who would not call themselves Republicans have not had the ability to articulate any kind of alternative. Democrats have spent too long trying to say, “We’re just the same, we’re just not so scary.” That is part of the problem we face here: no one has provided an alternative.

People in rural communities feel—and I would certainly count a lot of Trump supporters in this as well—totally ignored. If I’m accustomed to, as a rural community, being ignored and being disinvested from, and I don’t have the kind of political institutions that used to exist, well, I’m just going to do the thing that makes the people who I know are making my life worse as mad as possible: I’m going to vote for the most insane person. I’m not going to be heard anyway, so why should I seriously participate in the process?

We need to provide an alternative that we can articulate that resonates with people. Like the Ohio referendum on abortion on November 7, for instance. Strong progress was made in a lot of rural communities in Ohio, thanks in part to organizers who were putting an alternative out there and actively talking to people.

It’s about helping rural people feel comfortable expressing the views that they have, because so many people in these places feel isolated. There’s certainly a social aspect to that, too, but it’s also a product of decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement. Attempts to rebuild those historic political institutions around progressive policy ideals are predicated on presenting such alternatives.

Why do you think the Democratic Party has for so many years failed in that?

A lot of people struggle with that question, and I do as well. There hasn’t been much political leadership in the party coming from rural parts of the country. In part, the party has been disconnected from these communities because the people who would participate in these movements have left rural areas.  And part of it is the acquiescence of some Democratic Party leaders to mirror their opposition and buy into the ideas of so-called free trade, which has accelerated the decline and disinvestment in rural communities.

A summary answer would be: the Democratic Party’s loss of soul, the loss of its identity as an institution.

The post Electrifying Democracy in Rural America appeared first on Barn Raiser.

Toxic Terrain

‘Massive’ federal solar investment could mean big utility savings in Kentucky coal country

Main Cross Street in Louisa, Kentucky.

An unlikely collaboration between a Kentucky coalfield county and Kentucky’s largest city began when a former high school English teacher, Megan Downey, walked into the Lawrence County courthouse in Louisa in August.

Inspired by a personal desire to find ways to tackle the impacts of climate change, Downey had launched a nonprofit called The Solar Collaborative last year in Virginia dedicated to helping Appalachian communities transition to renewable energy.

She had been pitching an idea to local governments across Eastern Kentucky: Seek some of the billions in federal funding up for grabs in the Solar for All competition. Through the competition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to invest $7 billion through 60 grants to states, local governments, nonprofits and tribal governments to “increase access to affordable, resilient, and clean solar energy for millions of low-income households.” The money comes from the Inflation Reduction Act’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

When Downey talked with Deputy Judge-Executive Vince Doty about the opportunity, he agreed “within minutes” to sign up.

“He’s the biggest advocate, I think, in the whole region for this type of project,” Downey said. “A lot of low-income communities don’t have access to that economic savings that’s associated with solar, and so it’s just one more way in which a wealth gap is continuing to increase.”

Doty brought other Eastern Kentucky counties on board for an application to the competition; judge-executives in Lawrence, Johnson, Martin, Floyd, Pike, Boyd, Greenup counties all wrote letters of support. After learning they had both submitted letters of intent to apply for the federal funding, the mountain counties teamed up with Louisville’s government to submit a unified application that could provide affordable access to solar energy for thousands of low-income homes in Kentucky from its largest cities to its rural Appalachian counties.

It’s one of two competing applications from Kentucky. The other was submitted by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet; solar advocates say it could be a significant boost  for the use of residential solar across the state.

Advocates argue more distributed solar, for example via solar panels on rooftops, could mean utility bill savings for Kentuckians and a curbing of greenhouse gas emissions connected to Kentucky’s fossil fuel-reliant electricity grid.

For Doty, seeking funding for solar was foremost about easing the financial burden of his constituents in a region that faces continued economic challenges from the decline of the coal industry. Lawrence County is one of 20 Eastern Kentucky counties served by electric utility Kentucky Power, which has the highest monthly residential utility bills in Kentucky, according to a state analysis.

“We always try to put our citizens first,” Doty said. “If there’s a chance that we can save somebody $300 a month off their electric bill, that’s worth trying for.”

Solar low-income households, ‘resilience hubs’ and job training

Both the Louisville-Eastern Kentucky and state government proposals are wide in scope, highlighting specific ideas for how to use tens of millions of dollars in federal funding. Both applications could mean integrating solar energy into thousands of homes, whether through direct ownership of rooftop solar installations or better access to existing or planned community solar projects.

The Louisville-Eastern Kentucky application is asking for $150 million to be spent over five years, proposing:

  • A zero to low-cost forgivable loan program geared toward having low-income households own small solar installations or receive energy efficiency upgrades. For example, homeowners applying to the loan program who are below 80% of the area median income could have an entire loan forgiven for a six-kilowatt solar installation; half of the loan could be forgiven for property owners renting to Kentuckians below 80% of the area median income.
  • Turn community centers in areas prone to natural disasters into “resilience hubs” equipped with solar power and electric battery storage for times of power outages.
  • Build a workforce to deploy residential solar by creating training programs, building on already existing programs in Kentucky’s community and technical college system.

Downey said Doty had advocated in a number of meetings as the Louisville-Eastern Kentucky application was being developed that it was a “non-negotiable” that Kentuckians should own the solar installations themselves

The application anticipates, if awarded funding, at least a 20% energy bill reduction for approximately 7,300 households in Kentucky taking part in the proposal. Households that ultimately receive a six-kilowatt solar installation for free could see energy bill reductions up to 50%, according to the application.

“If you put solar on your home, you immediately have benefits economically from the savings that you garner. It also increases the value of your home,” Downey said. “So this has the potential for a really significant impact if you look at it over 25 years as far as wealth generation goes.”

The Louisville-Eastern Kentucky application estimates the results of the funding would add another approximate 44 megawatts of distributed solar power onto Kentucky’s grid. That would increase distributed solar in the state by about 70%, with 63.5 megawatts of distributed solar already in Kentucky.

The application also estimates about 1,300 “green jobs” will be created through the proposed solar investment. Steve Ricketts, the board chair of the advocacy group Kentucky Solar Energy Society, said while construction work associated with larger, utility-scale solar projects is temporary, ending once the project is completed, those workers also can work on installing solar in their own communities.

“They can be working on homes in their own town, they can be working on businesses and around town. So the two are incredibly complementary, and, frankly, have to go together to make it all work,” Ricketts said.

Sumedha Rao, the executive director of Louisville Metro Government’s Office of Sustainability, said the estimates of solar power added, households helped and renewable energy jobs created through the funding proposal are somewhat conservative and that the impact of the grant could be even more.

Given that Kentucky has historically relied on fossil fuels, she said, a transition to renewables can be a “scary proposition” for some Kentuckians. But she believes the Solar for All grant competition has a lot of upside with helping the state transition economically.

“We really feel like this is something that can have a massive impact for years to come,” Rao said.

Solar installations for rebuilt homes, ‘solarize’ campaigns and community solar

The Solar for All application submitted by state officials leads with its own idea of how residential solar can be deployed across the state, particularly in areas hit by devastating floods and tornadoes in recent years.

Requesting $100 million from the Solar for All competition, one of the state’s proposals is to put residential solar and an electricity battery storage system on 850 “disaster recovery” homes that could result in 70% utility bill savings for each home — or up to $1,000 in annual bill savings per home — over the course of 20 years.

For Kenya Stump, the executive director of the state’s Office of Energy Policy, eliminating most of the energy bills is just one way to help people recovering from natural disasters who may have lost every material thing they own.

“If they can live in a home from here on out that is more resilient, that also has the burden of that kind of cost is no longer there — shouldn’t we kind of strive for that?” Stump said.

  • The application also proposes to help increase solar access for low-income Kentuckians, support housing nonprofits in creating energy-efficient housing, develop residential solar in cities and boost the state’s solar deployment workforce in several ways: Create subsidies and carve-outs to help Kentuckians participating in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, take part in existing and planned “community solar” projects to cut residential utility bills by about 20%.
  • Add solar power and electricity battery storage onto about 1,500 homes that already have energy efficiency upgrades, such as households that have participated in Weatherization Assistance Program.
  • Develop “Solarize” campaigns to promote residential solar in Kentucky cities including Paducah, Owensboro, Henderson, Bowling Green, Lexington and Ashland.
  • Create 1,500 “work-ready” scholarships and provide funding to community and technical colleges funding to create solar deployment training programs.

Stump said in many instances low-income Kentuckians live in homes that are old and energy inefficient, leading to higher energy usage and subsequently higher utility bills. She said by enrolling LIHEAP recipients in community solar programs — such as ones offered by East Kentucky Power Cooperative and Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities (LG&E and KU) — they can get a direct credit on their bill and get more value from the utilized renewable energy.

“The energy regardless of the source will just still leak out” of poorly insulated, inefficient homes, Stump said. “We also hope that this will incentivize the growth of more municipal and utility community solar offerings that would be eligible to have LIHEAP carve-outs as well.”

Some stakeholders involved in the Louisville-Eastern Kentucky application, while supportive of community solar projects in general, were skeptical of using Solar for All funds on such projects out of concerns that some community solar models, specifically LG&E and KU’s “Solar Share” program, subsidize an asset of an investor-owned utility with taxpayer funds.

Stump said while stakeholders may wish some existing community solar projects were designed differently, it’s what is currently offered by Kentucky utilities and “can provide some benefit” to low-income Kentuckians that haven’t been able to take advantage.

The two Kentucky applications submitted to Solar for All do align on ways to boost the workforce needed to install residential solar on homes, though Stump added that developing a renewable energy workforce needs to be paced with the deployment of solar.

“That’s our greatest challenge is to make sure we get the timing right so that it aligns with the deployment of projects. We don’t want to give someone hope, and then there not be any work,” Stump said.

For Stump, the Solar for All competition is just one federal program and incentive among many that will ultimately “shift and transform our energy landscape.”

No guarantee both applications will be awarded

Lane Boldman, the executive director of the environmental advocacy group Kentucky Conservation Coalition, believes both applications are “really solid” but points out the federal government is only giving out 60 grants. Competition for the grants is stiff: More than 30 states have submitted notices that they’re applying along with a number of local governments and nonprofits across the country.

Lawrence County and Louisville decided to collaborate, in part, to increase the chances that their Solar for All application would get awarded. The stakeholders with Lawrence County and Louisville also tried unsuccessfully to unify their application with the state’s proposal.

Boldman said a big question became if a single grant application could ask for enough funding to cover all of the “great ideas” being proposed for the competition.

“The decision really was that it was better to keep them as two separate applications,” Boldman said. “I have to say that I think both grants are very strong and deserving, and so we just have to wait and see what the federal government decides.”

‘Massive’ federal solar investment could mean big utility savings in Kentucky coal country is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Biden Touts Rural Achievements as Part of “Barnstorming” Tour

President Joe Biden is seen from the shoulders up in the midst of attendees of his barnstorming tour.

The Biden administration is in the final days of a two-week national rural “barnstorm” designed to take the administration’s accomplishments to rural America, which could be a pivotal part of the 2024 presidential election.

President Biden kicked off the tour with a speech at Dutch Creek Farms, a farm located in Minnesota’s southern Dakota County, on November 1. Biden, who faces a tight reelection race, focused on how he was improving rural life for farmers struggling because of the pandemic and climate change. Though some of his remarks resonated with rural attendees, for others they fell flat.

The Calculus in Minnesota

This Minnesota family farm is the only event Biden has attended himself during the rural tour, which includes stops in urban cities such as Indianapolis, too. He may have prioritized Minnesota as part of his strategy to win votes for next year. Though the farm in Dakota county where he spoke is not rural by federal definition — it is one of seven counties that comprise the Twin Cities metropolitan area — it is about three miles north of rural Rice County, where Biden lost to Trump by less than a point.

He is also struggling to raise funds from Minnesota donors. As of September, former President Donald Trump raised just over $580,000 from Minnesota donors, more than Biden’s $388,000. And an Emerson College poll shows Biden holds only a slight two-point lead over Trump.

Meanwhile, a national poll indicates that economic issues are top-of-mind among rural voters.

Results of the poll, conducted by the Center for Rural Strategies and Lake Research Partners, were released the same day Biden spoke in Minnesota. It found that rural voters were concerned most about the high cost of goods, affordable housing, and corporate greed. Biden’s speech also comes about a month after a Reuters poll found 71% of rural Americans disapproved of his presidential performance.

Putting Money in Rural America

Speaking inside a barn on the 81-acre Dutch Creek Farms property, Biden talked about his efforts to enhance rural quality of life, mostly through an agricultural lens. These efforts include money to grow cover crops to address climate change, money to foster smaller meat processing plant operations, and money for broadband, clean water, roads, and electricity.  Biden hopes this will address the high cost of goods, deter corporate greed, and ensure rural people can afford to stay in rural America.

Biden plans to invest nearly $1.7 billion for more “climate-smart” agriculture practices, an additional $2 billion to increase health care and affordable housing access in rural communities whose leaders work together through the Rural Partners Network, $1.1 billion to repair rural electrical and water infrastructure, $145 million for farmers to install clean energy generating technologies like solar panels, and an additional $274 million to expand high-speed internet to rural communities.

This is on top of $1 billion he already invested through the American Rescue Plan to support small and medium-sized meat processors. In his speech, Biden talked about Brad Kluver, the owner of Dutch Creek Farms, who had to sell his hogs on social media when larger meat processing plants closed at the beginning of the pandemic.

Brad Kluver of Dutch Creek Farms, pictured here with President Joe Biden, is a third-generation farmer. (Photo: H. Jiahong Pan)

“And instead of … depending on one income stream and being at the mercy of the commodity markets and the big corporations, under our plan, farmers can diversify and earn additional income just [by] selling into the local markets,” said Biden in his speech. “Because of these investments we’re making, family farms like this one will stay in the family, and children and grandchildren like Brad won’t have to leave home to make a living.

Hope and Anxiety

Some who attended believed Biden is doing a good job. Angela Dawson, a Black hemp farmer in Pine County, halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth, Minnesota, applauded Biden’s attempts to address racial injustice in farming, even though they were ultimately struck down by a federal judge.

Angela Dawson stands against a railing at the first stop on President Biden's "barnstorming" tour. She is a Black woman wearing braids, thick glasses, and a patterned scarf.
Angela Dawson, a hemp farmer from Pine County, Minnesota is hopeful about some of Biden’s efforts. (Photo: H. Jiahong Pan)

“I do feel [Biden has] made some good efforts. I think specifically farmers of color have been usually the last priority for a lot of administrations. This is the first time that we’ve been put a little higher on the priority list, and I’d like to see that continue,” said Dawson, who mentioned that the Black farming population dwindled by more than 90% over the past 100 years.

Rodrigo Cala agrees. Cala, who works for the Latino Economic Development Center, a St. Paul-based organization that supports economic development for Latino families, received a grant from the USDA, bankrolled by the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, to strengthen small farmers’ access to land, capital, and markets. The organization plans to help aspiring Latino farmers purchase land in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin starting next year.

Cala also says the Biden administration still needs to do more for farmers of color. “Who’s going to be the next generation of farmers in this country? The average age of farmers is 58 years old,” said Cala, who also mentioned that the country – and particularly rural communities – is diversifying.

One of these next-generation farmers is Tessa Parks, who is of white, Japanese and Filipino descent. She and her husband moved to Minnesota to run a farm in the same Dakota County township where Biden spoke.

The Parks came to Minnesota because they couldn’t afford to live in Washington, let alone start a farm there. “[I would need] to win the lottery. We would go bankrupt before we could have any animals on the ground,” said Tessa Parks. “I miss my mom’s cooking. I miss my grandma’s cooking. I tear up when I get my favorite teriyaki chicken and gyoza.” Tessa added that climate change is another factor that led them to start a farm in Minnesota.

In a phone call with the Daily Yonder after Biden’s speech, Parks said she wanted to hear more about health care and child care. “[So that] I won’t go bankrupt if I choose to have a child. We shouldn’t have to worry about taking care of ourselves versus paying the mortgage, or having enough money to put gas in the car to even get to the job that we need to pay for our farm to pay for our house, pay for food,” she said.

Parks was also concerned about getting help on the farm, especially if she or her husband becomes ill. “We need to rely on other outside-of-family folks to lend us a hand sometimes,” she said. “Our dads aren’t able to jump on a tractor and lend help when we need it, because they’re in Washington [state].”

The Biden administration has worked to make health care accessible by cracking down on “surprise” bills and so-called junk plans, named because although they are affordable health care plans, they don’t cover much. The Biden administration is also asking a divided Congress for $16 billion to fund child care nationwide.

Still, it’s not comforting for Parks, who has health insurance with a high deductible and had medical debt from an illness that she just finished paying off. While Parks and her husband farm in their free time, they also work full-time jobs advancing sustainable farming practices. They currently can’t afford to live on their farm and  instead live in neighboring Rice County.

“When he was explaining his investments in rural America and small family farms, it feels really targeted at established farms, multigenerational farms, specifically white landowners, not those of us who struggle to afford rent [on] land that [we] will put a lot of time and energy into maintaining and growing food, but ultimately have no security in,” said Parks.

Other Stops on the Rural Tour

Biden was joined in Minnesota by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Shortly afterward, Vilsack traveled to Indianapolis to speak about the Farm Bill, improving electrical infrastructure in rural Indiana, and engaging youth in agriculture, at the National Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis. Vilsack also met with the Western Governors’ Association in Wyoming to talk about how farmers can address climate change, and delivered opening remarks at a water symposium at Colorado State University.

Other cabinet appearances included Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Veteran Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, Deputy Secretary of Veteran Affairs Tanya Bradsher, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Centers for Disease Control director Mandy Cohen, and others. These stops covered funding for rural issues like meat processing and wastewater handling, electrical access and infrastructure, veteran affairs, education, and health care.


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Ohio oil and gas industry accident data boost worries about drilling under state parks

A petroleum well in Licking County, Ohio.

Public records show Ohio regulators log hundreds of incidents each year dealing with chemical releases related to the oil and gas industry.

Such events raise critics’ concerns about plans to drill for oil and gas under state-owned parks and wildlife areas. While most problems happen at rigs and wellheads, which will be outside the parks, critics say airborne releases of methane or other chemicals would not be limited to property boundaries. And they fear that runoff could reach groundwater or surface water sources for state parks and nearby areas.

Jenny Morgan, a volunteer with the group Save Ohio Parks, said she asked the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for public records after Rob Brundrett, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said in a radio appearance last month that environmental problems and safety-related events “are certainly isolated events” when considered in light of the amount of industrial activity over the past 13 years.

Brundrett told the Energy News Network the state has nearly 63,000 oil and gas wells and thousands of miles of gas pipelines. And he focused on incidents that rose to the level of “major” or “severe” problems.

Morgan said the ODNR documents provide a very different perspective.

She also noted an event earlier this week, where a gas leak at a Guernsey County well pad triggered a mandatory evacuation within a half-mile radius. The sheriff lifted the order Monday night, but cautioned residents to seek medical attention if they had headaches, dizziness or trouble breathing.

The ODNR spreadsheets sent to Morgan last week show approximately 1,530 incidents from the start of 2018 through Sept. 10 of this year.

Agency personnel classified three events as “major” or “severe,” meaning they presented relatively high degrees of public safety or environmental impacts. They took up to a day or longer to control and required involvement by multiple agencies.

A “major” event on July 11 required the evacuation of more than 450 people in Columbiana County due to a well pad gas leak, for example.

Another two dozen incidents rose to the level of “moderate” events. ODNR’s spreadsheets say those events involved “considerable” public safety or environmental impacts. Problems took up to 12 hours to control, often with involvement from multiple agencies. Chemical releases exceeded various regulatory reporting thresholds.

Roughly 790 events during the nearly six-year period fit into ODNR’s “minor” category. The spreadsheets indicate those situations were stabilized in less than four hours with minimal public safety or environmental impact.

On Sept. 4, for example, a landowner accidentally struck a line with a brush hog, causing a gas leak. On Aug. 29, crude oil from a small flowline leak in Carroll County reached a dry ditch. On April 24, a Guernsey County site had a combustor fire while a truck was loading up at a well pad. A Jan. 7 “loss of well control” led to small amounts of brine on the soil and drainage area for a Noble County site.

Many of the remaining 600 or so events on the spreadsheets reflected referrals from other agencies, cases where ODNR gave technical assistance and matters outside the scope of ODNR’s oil and gas management work.

Events within ODNR’s jurisdiction dealt with oil and gas or brine and other fluids from both conventional and fracked horizontal wells.

“The ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources management will continue to carry out regulations set by statute and work to respond to incidents that need to be addressed,” said spokesperson Andy Chow, responding to the Energy News Network’s request for comment about public concerns over releases of oil, gas, brine or other materials into the environment.

“We’re just astounded at the fact that you could have this number of accidents and say that the oil and gas industry is safe,” said Melinda Zemper, another Save Ohio Parks member. The group is planning a rally at the Ohio Statehouse on Friday, Oct. 27, at noon.

Understating problems?

ODNR’s categories seem to understate the problem, said Silverio Caggiano, a hazardous materials expert whose three decades of experience includes work with the Youngstown Fire Department and Mahoning County hazardous materials team.

For example, ODNR categorized as moderate a June 2019 Harrison County event where explosions and fire damaged nine tanks in the wake of thunderstorms at a fracked well site. The report surmises that most well condensate and brine burned. But approximately 11,000 gallons of brine were released onto a well pad. Booms and pads were needed to stop flow where the well pad’s containment was damaged.

“Moderate” events earlier this year include an April 4 wellhead fire and a June 1 explosion.

A “minor” event on Feb. 1, 2019, released approximately four barrels of brine at an injection well site in Licking County due to frozen pipes. The spill was apparently contained on the well pad, but trucks for cleanup couldn’t reach the site right away due to a snow emergency.

Multiple incidents in the ODNR spreadsheets involve injection wells and transport of brine or other waste fluids. Brine is super salty water that comes up from wells. It often has elevated levels of heavy metals, as well as naturally occurring radioactive material. Brine waste is generally disposed of in underground injection wells.

The oil and gas industry also adds chemicals to fluids pumped into horizontal wells shortly after drilling to fracture, or frack, shale rock so oil and gas can flow out. Much of the fluids comes back up before oil and gas production begins and most of the waste must also be disposed of in deep injection wells.

“The sad thing is that a lot of these chemicals are unknown because they don’t have safety data sheets with them,” Caggiano said.

Even if one excludes complaints about odor, smell or plain informational reports, “you’re still looking at 50 to 60 calls a year” statewide, Caggiano added.

In Caggiano’s view, an average of one call a week, even for “minor” incidents, belies the industry’s claims that there are few problems. Even quickly cleaned-up releases involve chemicals that can be toxic, he said. And “obviously [prevention plans] didn’t work, because you had an incident,” he said.

“The fact that there have been only three major incidents since 2018 is a testament to the industry’s rigorous safety standards and practices,” said Brundrett at the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. “Considering that only .004% of Ohio oil and gas operations have had a major reportable incident during that timeframe, I would put our industry’s safety numbers against any other manual industry in Ohio.”

The information from the spreadsheets also “highlights the important steps of transparency and government cooperation that the oil and gas industry has adopted to minimize risk to the environment, our employees and the people of Ohio,” Brundrett added.

However, critics don’t discount “moderate” or even “minor” events.

“The cost is the collateral damage to the people and the environment in these areas,” said Roxanne Groff, another member of Save Ohio Parks.

The logged incidents also raise worries for her and others about proposals to drill under Ohio state-owned lands, including Salt Fork and Wolf Run state parks and Valley Run and Zepernick wildlife areas.

“What if it happens around Salt Fork? What if it goes into one of the major feeds into Wolf Run or Salt Fork Lake?” Groff said.The Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission plans to rule on the proposals to drill under ODNR land before the end of the year.

Ohio oil and gas industry accident data boost worries about drilling under state parks is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’

José Cora and Carlos Lago, in fellow activist Sol Piñeiro’s yard, hold a banner showing the parts of Puerto Rico where coal ash has been dumped as construction fill.

The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from industry land grabs to struggles with broadband and a lack of representation in business and in government that makes it near impossible for many to cultivate generational wealth. This six-part series from the Rural News Network, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, elevates the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.


SALINAS, Puerto Rico — After Sol Piñeiro retired from bilingual special education in New Jersey public schools, she bought a dream house in Salinas on Puerto Rico’s south coast, near the town where she was born.

She and her husband built a traditional Puerto Rican casita beside the main home and filled the sprawling yard with orchids, cacti and colorful artifacts, including a bright red vintage pickup truck.

Only after setting up her slice of paradise here did she learn the road running alongside it contained toxic waste from a nearby power plant.

Salinas is one of 14 municipalities around the island that between 2004 and 2011 used coal ash as a cheap material to construct roads and fill land. The material is a byproduct of burning coal and is known to contain a long list of toxic and radioactive chemicals. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not specifically regulate coal ash until 2015, and those regulations don’t cover the coal ash used in roads like that in Salinas.

Any community with a coal-burning power plant likely has tons of toxic coal ash stored somewhere nearby, in pits, ponds or piles. In 2015, the EPA announced new rules requiring groundwater testing and safer storage and disposal methods, but the rules exempt power companies from responsibility for ash dispersed for use in road building and other projects.

Scant or nonexistent recordkeeping makes comprehensively mapping this scattered coal ash impossible, but environmental and public health advocates suspect the material is likely contaminating groundwater and causing toxic dust across the United States.

Perhaps nowhere is the problem as prominent as on Puerto Rico’s south coast, a rural, economically struggling region far from the capital of San Juan and major tourist destinations. Here, coal ash — or “cenizas” in Spanish — has become a symbol of the environmental injustice that has long plagued the U.S. colony.

The ash originated from a coal-fired power plant owned by global energy company AES in the nearby town of Guayama. After the Dominican Republic began refusing imports of the waste, the company promoted the material to Puerto Rican municipalities and contractors as a construction fill product. In all, more than 1.5 million tons of coal ash were deposited in Salinas and Guayama, according to a 2012 letter by the company’s vice president that was obtained by the Puerto Rico-based Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, or Center for Investigative Journalism.

In July 2022, a decade after community pressure forced the company to stop marketing ash for such use, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Guayama and Salinas to meet with residents about coal ash and other environmental issues as part of his “Journey to Justice” tour. The tour also included the agency’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council meeting in Puerto Rico. Piñeiro and others are glad for the attention, but given the U.S. government’s long history of broken promises and neglect in Puerto Rico, they are impatient for meaningful action.

From left, José Cora Collazo, Sol Piñeiro, and Carlos Lago on the coal ash road running along Piñeiro’s home.
From left, José Cora Collazo, Sol Piñeiro, and Carlos Lago on the coal ash road running along Piñeiro’s home. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Energy injustice

Piñeiro learned the backstory of the powdery gray road material when she connected with José Cora Collazo, who lives in a mint-green home perched on a hillside nearby, with sweeping views of the south coast. Piñeiro has since joined Cora in leading the organization Acción Social y Protección Ambiental, raising awareness about coal ash and demanding change from local and U.S. officials.

While the majority of Puerto Rico’s population lives on the north coast, including the San Juan area, the bulk of the island’s power is generated on the south coast, including at the AES coal plant as well as a nearby power plant that burns oil. That means the residents of Guayama, Salinas and other nearby communities could be subject to a myriad of public health risks, experts and activists say, while the mangrove ecosystem of Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and area fisheries could also be threatened.

During frequent heavy rains, Piñeiro and Cora see the gray coal ash streaming down crumbling roads and into the tangled brush and creeks that traverse the hillsides. As Piñeiro’s picturesque homestead is on a slope below the road Calle Luis Llorens Torres, the coal ash runs down onto her property.

Local residents draw drinking water from their own private wells or a network of municipal wells, and they worry that coal ash is polluting the groundwater. In 2021, chemist Osvaldo Rosario spearheaded testing of tap water in area homes and found disturbing signs of contamination with toxic metals known to be in coal ash. In August, Rosario and colleagues retested the same homes and are awaiting results.

Rosario’s testing and ongoing activism by locals spurred the U.S. EPA to do its own groundwater testing this spring. EPA spokesperson Robert Daguillard previously told the Energy News Network the agency anticipated presenting the results in late September; EPA did not respond to a recent query about the status of the results.

“EPA’s focus on CCR [coal combustion residuals] in Puerto Rico follows the commitment made by Administrator Regan during his Journey to Justice visit with communities concerned with the management of CCR in Puerto Rico,” Daguillard said in response to the Energy News Network’s questions.

AES’ coal plant in Guayama.
AES’ coal plant in Guayama. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Broken promises, problematic offers

When AES built the coal plant, it promised the resulting ash would be shipped off the island. An investigation by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo revealed that in its first two years of operation, more than 100 million tons of coal ash from the plant were sent to the Dominican Republic, dumped in and around the town of Arroyo Barril and several ports. Soon residents noticed a spike in birth defects, miscarriages and other ailments, which experts attributed to the coal ash pollution.

The country barred coal ash imports. In U.S. court, AES agreed to pay $6 million to remove the coal ash. Meanwhile, AES began marketing the byproduct in Puerto Rico as a construction fill under the brand name Agremax. The ash was used in the wealthy San Juan-area town of Dorado and the university town of Mayaguez on the west coast, but use was heaviest on the south coast.

“They began dumping the ash in many areas of Puerto Rico as the base for many roads, many trails, unpaved trails of pure ash,” Rosario said. “They would fill in flood-prone areas so there could be construction. There was illegal dumping in many open areas. They literally gave the ash away; they paid for the transportation. A contractor would say, ‘I need 20 tons of coal ash to fill in this area,’ and they would bring the coal ash.”

A 2023 report by the environmental organization Earthjustice noted that the toxic ash still lies unused and uncovered at sites where it poses health risks to people in nearby homes, parks, a school and a hospital. “At numerous sites, the coal ash was left uncovered or covered only with a thin layer of dirt, which quickly eroded,” the report said. “Fugitive dust from these uncovered piles and roads is common.”

Rosario said that the use of coal ash was done “under the permissive oversight of government agencies.”

“You put a couple inches of topsoil over it, then when that topsoil gets eroded away or you dig to plant a tree, you reach this gray material which is the ash,” he said. “The water level is not far below that. This was done behind the backs of the people. They got mortgages for houses built on toxic material.”

Sol Piñeiro pictured in her yard holding a piece of produce she grew. The sprawling yard is filled with orchids, cacti and colorful artifacts, including a bright red vintage pickup truck.
Sol Piñeiro in her yard, with produce she grew. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Unencapsulated ash

In 2012, Vanderbilt University tested Agremax at the behest of the U.S. EPA. It found that the material — a mix of fly ash and bottom ash — leached high concentrations of arsenic, boron, chloride, chromium, fluoride, lithium and molybdenum.

Coal ash is commonly used as a component in concrete, and it is widely considered safe when it is encapsulated in such material.

But unencapsulated use of coal ash, while legal, is opposed by environmental groups  who fear that the dangerous heavy metals known to leach into groundwater can spread and potentially expose people to carcinogens and neurotoxins through drinking water, soil and air.

Advocates have long argued for stricter regulation of unencapsulated use of coal ash. As the Energy News Network explored in a 2022 investigation, throughout the U.S. developers can use up to 12,400 tons of unencapsulated coal ash without notifying the public.

There are about a billion tons of coal ash stored in impoundments and landfills around the U.S., and testing required under 2015 federal rules shows that almost all of it is contaminating groundwater, as Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project and other organizations have shown based on the companies’ own groundwater monitoring data. This summer, the EPA expanded what types of coal ash storage are subject to the rules, including ash at repositories that were closed before 2015.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the expanded rules also address ash used as structural fill in places like Salinas and Guayama.

But the agency did not mention such ash in its revision to the rules, with the draft released in May. In June, Cora traveled to Chicago to testify before the EPA. Unless they are changed, the rules leave his neighbors and others across Puerto Rico with few legal avenues to fight for accountability and remediation.

“The coal ash industry has their laboratories; they know what they are doing,” Rosario said. “I go back to the word ‘avarice’ — they know all of this, just like the tobacco industry.”

AES, which is headquartered in Arlington County, Virginia, did not respond to questions from the Energy News Network. A regional AES representative instead provided a statement saying: “For more than 20 years, AES Puerto Rico has been bringing safe, affordable, and reliable energy to the island and supplying up to 25% of the island’s energy needs. We remain committed to accelerating the responsible transition to renewable energy for the island and the people of Puerto Rico.”

A history of struggle

Cora was aware of environmental issues from childhood. His father, José Juan Cora Rosa, was a prominent activist who fought against the U.S. Navy’s bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, among other iconic struggles.

The elder Cora explained that in the late 1990s, local resistance halted plans to build a coal plant in Mayaguez, the town on Puerto Rico’s west coast home to a prominent technical university. The coal plant was instead opened in 2002 in Guayama, despite opposition from the elder Cora and other residents. He said the company likely knew they’d face less pushback since Guayama’s population is smaller and economically struggling.

For years now, residents of Guayama and Salinas have complained of health effects — from tumors to skin disease — that they think are caused by the coal plant. A 2016 study by the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health showed a disproportionately high incidence of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, asthma, hives and spontaneous abortions in Guayama. Other studies have found high cancer rates in the area, according to reporting by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Salinas resident Victor Alvarado Guzmán has seen such health issues firsthand. His wife is a cancer survivor, and he notes that on two blocks in the Miramar community of Guayama, 18 people have had cancer, some fatal cases.

“That’s not normal,” he said.

Salinas resident and environmental activist Victor Alvarado Guzmán stands across the street from a shopping center that was built on a foundation of coal ash.
Salinas resident and environmental activist Victor Alvarado Guzmán wants to see coal ash removed from his community, where it was used to build roads and the foundation for shopping centers like this one. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Alvarado is trained as a psychologist but has been an environmental activist for a quarter-century, fighting unsuccessfully against the coal plant and successfully to block a proposed landfill and chicken processing plant from the area. He’s co-founder of the grassroots environmental group Diálogo Ambiental, and he’s run for public office.

Sitting in a restaurant in Salinas built on a foundation of coal ash, Alvarado said he wants to see historic ash removed from the community, and he wants the government to pay for soil and water testing plus blood testing for residents to see how heavy metals from coal ash may be affecting them.

Under a gazebo in Guayama on a stifling hot August afternoon, local environmental activists gathered to discuss the risk from coal ash, and the plant’s air emissions.

“Every time we have a meeting, we hear about someone else who is sick,” noted Miriam Gallardo, a teacher who used to work at a school near the plant, seeing coal ash-laden trucks go by.

Aldwin Colón, founder of community group Comunidad Guayama Unidos Por Tu Salud — Guayama Community United for Your Health — said that on his block, people in four out of the nine homes have cancer. He said he blames the coal plant and the public officials who have not done more to protect residents. He noted that Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi was previously a lobbyist representing AES.

He lamented that the company chose to build the plant in a lower-income community with little tourism.

“In poor communities, we don’t have the resources to fight back,” Colón said, in Spanish. “These are criminal companies that use corrupt politics for their own means. This is racism and classism — the same old story, the slaves sacrificed for the patron.”

Colón, Piñeiro and Cora drove around the area with other activists from Guayama to show the Energy News Network multiple sites where coal ash is visible. They pulled over along a major road, Dulces Sueños — Sweet Dreams — built in recent years. One man dug a shovel into the embankment next to the road. After turning over a few inches of soil and foliage, his shovel filled with gray powder.

An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil.
An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Continuing through Salinas and Guayama, Piñeiro pointed out the strip malls and fast food stores that were built on top of coal ash, among 36 specific locations documented by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Cora and Piñeiro noted the coal ash-laden “caminos blancos” — white roads, as they are commonly known — traversing the countryside, known as hot destinations for mountain bikers.

At a small store in Guayama, older men passed the sweltering afternoon sitting on plastic chairs sipping Medalla beers. The owner of the store, Jacob Soto Lopez, recounted how he used to jog on dirt roads in the nearby town of Arroyo — until he learned the dust he was kicking up was toxic coal ash. Now he frets about how it may be contaminating the drinking water.

“We sell bottled water here, but a lot of people can’t afford it,” he said. “They should stop producing the ashes and take away what they’ve thrown on our island.”

A recent environmental protest in Salinas. Dozens of activists hold signs, written in Spanish, protesting coal ash contamination in Puerto Rico.
A recent environmental protest in Salinas. Credit: José Cora Collazo / Courtesy

A revolt

On the mainland, many Americans are unaware of the threat posed by coal ash, or even its existence, since it is often stored on coal plant sites, in roads and berms, and in quarries, ravines, or old mines. The federal rules regulating coal ash that took effect in 2015 were barely enforced until 2022, when the EPA began issuing decisions related to the rules.

But in communities on Puerto Rico’s south coast, the term “cenizas” — ashes in Spanish — is often recognized as a signifier of injustice and popular struggle.

When AES offloaded Agremax for use in construction and fill starting in 2004, it’s possible local officials and others did not understand the risks. But concerns soon grew and multiple municipalities passed ordinances banning the storage of coal ash.

In 2016, residents of Peñuelas — 40 miles west of the plant — revolted over AES’ plan to truck ash to a landfill in their community, despite a municipal ordinance banning coal ash. Hundreds of people occupied the street, blocking trucks from entering the landfill, and dozens of arrests were made over several days in November 2016. AES stopped sending ash to Peñuelas.

Manuel “Nolo” Díaz, a leader of that movement, noted that locals were ready to snap into action since they had previously worked together to oppose a plan to build a gas pipeline through the area.

“We took over the street to enforce the law,” Díaz said, in Spanish. “It’s so beautiful when people come together to defend their rights. But the fight is not over until they remove the ashes from the 14 towns, and decontaminate the water they’ve contaminated.”

In 2017, the island’s government passed a law banning the storage of coal ash on the island. Since then, AES has shipped coal ash from the island to U.S. ports including Jacksonville, Florida, for storage in landfills in Georgia and elsewhere, the Energy News Network has reported.

While coal ash is no longer permanently stored in Puerto Rico, a mound of coal ash multiple stories high is visible at AES’ site, where it is allowed to be stored temporarily before transport. And coal ash still makes up the street above Piñeiro’s home and many others, creating milky gray rivulets running down the hills and likely percolating into drinking water sources.

Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigos del Mar, speaks surrounded by other activists at a press conference outside of Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan.
Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigos del Mar, speaks at a press conference outside of Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

A conundrum

The law against storing coal ash on the island could complicate efforts to remove it from roads and fill sites, since it would need to be transported and stored somewhere.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency allocated about $8 million for Salinas to repair roads in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Cora, Piñeiro and others have demanded that the money be used to remove coal ash from roads and rebuild them.

Last year, Salinas Mayor Karilyn Bonilla Colón requested an exception to the law banning the disposal of coal ash on the island, so that coal ash could be extracted from the roads in Salinas and deposited in landfills in Ponce, Humacao or Peñuelas. She told local media that exporting the ash off the island would be too expensive.

Organizations in Peñuelas and beyond opposed the move, calling it disrespectful to their communities. In January, the natural resources department denied the mayor’s request.

Piñeiro and Cora are frustrated Bonilla has not found another way to remove and dispose of the ash. On Sept. 5, activists painted on the street in Salinas with large letters calling the mayor “asesina ambiental” — an environmental assassin.

A spokesperson for Bonilla said she is no longer doing interviews about coal ash, and referred the Energy News Network to local news coverage of the controversy.

Cora and other activists are now appealing to Manuel A. Laboy Rivera, the executive director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency which oversees FEMA fund distribution in Puerto Rico, since he recently warned that 80 municipalities, government agencies and organizations in Puerto Rico will have to return the emergency funds if they can’t prove they’ve been used.

Cora and Piñeiro note that many of their neighbors are elderly, and don’t feel urgency around coal ash after having survived two hurricanes and a major earthquake in the past six years, not to mention the island’s ongoing economic crisis.

“But what about future generations?” Piñeiro asked.

“If the aquifer is contaminated and we don’t have potable water in Salinas, how can people live here?” added Cora, in Spanish. “What can we do?”

Cora, Piñeiro and their allies want the coal plant to close and be replaced by clean energy, and indeed Puerto Rico has passed a law calling for a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. But they don’t want the clean energy transition to replicate the injustices of the fossil fuel economy, and they feel plans for massive solar farms on the south coast — developed in part by AES — could do just that.

While solar farms are emissions-free, they continue the problem of reliance on a fragile centralized grid and put the island’s energy burden on the south coast.

Opponents say the proposed massive arrays of solar panels cause flooding and erosion — by compacting land and causing run-off — while also displacing agricultural land. Attorney Ruth Santiago, who has lived most of her life in Salinas, is representing environmental groups that recently filed a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico government over 18 planned solar farms, including by AES.

On Aug. 7, Alvarado led activists from island-wide environmental groups in delivering a letter to Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan, making demands around coal ash, solar farms and other issues.

“Under the theme of an energy transition that is just and clean, how are they going to deal with the deposit of toxic ashes across the country?” said Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigxs del Mar, in Spanish, outside the department’s office. “The department needs to tell us what their plan of action is to deal with this problem. And now the same company that has contaminated our community with coal ash is taking our agricultural lands for solar panels.”

Energy justice leaders instead want decentralized small solar and microgrids that are resilient during disasters and cause minimal environmental impacts so that future generations are not left with more injustices like coal ash.

“It’s this strange situation where it’s not a problem about the lack of funding,” Santiago said, referring to federal funds allocated to Puerto Rico. “There’s more than enough funding, but it’s being used to rebuild this business-as-usual kind of electric system. This disaster recovery funding should be an opportunity to transform the electric system in a way that would really serve the public interest.”

In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’ is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Massachusetts seeks to streamline approvals for community choice aggregation

City Hall in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts officials are proposing policy solutions to address a bureaucratic backlog that municipal leaders and clean energy advocates say is bogging down one of the state’s most successful drivers of clean electricity purchases.

Nineteen communities across the state are waiting for public utility regulators to rule on proposed community choice aggregation plans, in which local governments negotiate with power suppliers for lower prices or a higher share of renewables.

Some of these municipalities have been waiting for more than two years to launch their programs. Another 16 are waiting to see if the state will let them modify existing programs. As the proposals languish, municipalities are missing out on chances to save residents money and cut carbon emissions.

In response to this backlog, the state energy department has proposed a new system to streamline the process, though many advocates are highly skeptical of these guidelines.

“I’m not sure that the way they’ve drafted them is really going to address the backlog,” said Martha Grover, sustainability manager for the city of Melrose, which first adopted community choice aggregation in 2015 and has held off updating the program in recent years because of the delays.

In addition, state Rep. Tommy Vitolo has introduced a bill that would require faster response times and allow municipalities to make some changes to programs without seeking state approval.

Massachusetts was the first state to introduce these programs, as a part of electricity restructuring legislation passed in 1997. The policy allows individual cities and towns or groups of municipalities to use the promise of a built-in customer base to negotiate with power suppliers for prices. Generally, residents are automatically enrolled but can opt out at any time.

The Cape Light Compact, a group of 21 towns on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, formed the state’s first aggregation program in 2000. The idea was slow to catch on, however, until electricity prices started rising in 2013 and 2014, prompting more municipalities to seek alternatives. Today, there are 168 municipal aggregation plans active in the state, saving consumers more than $200 million annually, according to a report from the nonprofit Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Though not explicitly an emissions reduction program, aggregation also allows municipalities to include more renewable energy in their portfolios than legally required. And many of them do exactly that: 76 of Massachusetts’ aggregation programs included extra renewable content in 2022, according to the consumers alliance. Another 40 communities let individual residents opt-in to higher levels of renewable energy. In 2022, Massachusetts’ green energy aggregation programs increased demand for renewable energy in the state by more than 1 million megawatt-hours, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance calculated.

“There is no other program in the commonwealth that produces cleaner electrons without subsidy,” said alliance executive director Larry Chretien.

The delays were first caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement from the state energy department. Additionally, the complexity of the rules and requirements for a successful application have also slowed things down, state officials and municipal leaders agree. Each time regulators rule on a plan, any new precedent set by that ruling must be complied with by all future applicants. This requirement makes it hard for municipalities to understand the rules and forces frequent revisions. It also makes it more painstaking for the state to ensure a proposal meets the ever-changing slate of requirements.

“There are now 168 approved plans and we are held accountable to rules and ways of operating that are buried in the footnotes,” Grover said.

The proposed solutions

The state has responded to the backlog by releasing draft guidelines that summarize and simplify the detailed requirements. It has also issued an application template and proposed an expedited approval process for municipalities that use the template.

“Addressing these delays is a top priority for the [Department of Public Utilities], and we look forward to announcing finalized guidelines that will help facilitate a timely review of applications,” said department chair Jamie Van Nostrand.

For many municipalities, however, the guidelines make no changes to the process, but only formalize the existing approach, which many say amounts to micromanagement. At least eight cities and towns have filed testimony so far arguing that the proposal erodes local control and would be unlikely to speed up approvals. The draft guidelines would make the process “more burdensome and less efficient,” testified Michael Ossing, city council president in Marlborough, which adopted community choice aggregation in 2006, saving residents an estimated $26 million over the past 17 years.

“Aggregation should be under municipal control,” said Anthony Rinaldi, an Amesbury city councilor. “We should control how we implement the program, how we inform our citizens. But they want to control every little thing.”

Vitolo’s bill offers an alternative approach. It would address the delays by requiring the state to issue a decision on aggregation applications within 90 days. If this deadline is not met, a program would automatically be approved. If regulators rejected a program, and applicants resubmitted an amended plan within 30 days, the state would then have 30 days to issue a decision.

The bill would also allow cities and towns to make certain changes — including periodic changes to prices and product offerings, means of providing notifications to customers, and sharing translated materials — to their programs without returning to utility regulators for approval. Vitolo points to Boston, which launched a community choice program in 2021, as an example: the city wants to distribute translations of its information materials, but can’t do so without getting in the slow-moving line for approval.

“It’s been frustrating,” Vitolo said. “We want to allow these aggregators to make simple straightforward changes without going to the [state].”

Vitolo’s bill had a committee hearing in late September. Now supporters must wait to see if it gains traction in the legislature.

Massachusetts seeks to streamline approvals for community choice aggregation is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Inside the rough-and-tumble race to clean up America’s abandoned oil wells

The rig operator was stumped. He’d been making good progress, but now something blocked the way forward. The operator, Denny Mong, stared at an unassuming metal tube in the ground — the fossil of an oil well. Spread around it was an array of industrial detritus and steel tools like giant surgical implements, which sunk into the spongy Western Pennsylvania meadow.

Above the hole, Mong’s rig, which towered 50 feet into the air, suspended a vertical ramrod. When it dropped, the ramrod only shot 17 feet into the ground before slamming to a stop. Earlier, Mong had managed to reach more than 500 feet deeper into the well. Then this obstruction, whatever it was, sent him back to the start.

Clearing it — prime suspects included metal casing, rocks, or a tree branch — would allow him to send cement and pea gravel into the hole, which reached hundreds of feet into Appalachian rock formations. Once an active oil well, now it was an environmental nuisance and the target of an ambitious federal cleanup program.

The well needed to be decommissioned, along with at least 21 more spread across woodlands and fields in McKean County, Pennsylvania. The job fell to Mong and other employees of an oil service outfit called Plants & Goodwin, which specializes in plugging so-called orphan wells. Oil and gas companies are supposed to plug and clean up wells that they’ve drilled, but if they go bankrupt or otherwise disappear, that responsibility falls to the state, which then contracts with companies like Plants & Goodwin. If left festering, these wells can leak contaminants into surrounding groundwater or release methane, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Uncorking a well in this part of Appalachia reveals a blend of oil and gas that has a nauseous maté color and gurgles like witch’s brew. After generations of drilling, the remnants of both vernacular backyard digs and professional oil operations pockmark the land. Since drillers operated for more than a century with little regulatory oversight, documentation of well locations is scarce and cleanup quality is inconsistent.

“Until the 1970s there were no strong plugging standards in place,” said Luke Plants, who heads Plants & Goodwin. “People just shoving tree stumps down a well to plug it, or a cast iron ball or something like that.”

The exact number of orphan wells nationwide is unknown. In late 2021, The Interstate Oil and Gas Commission, a multi-state organization, had more than 130,000 orphan wells on record but estimated that anywhere between 310,000 and 800,000 remained unidentified. That year the federal government took notice, folding $4.7 billion into the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to help states handle their orphan well inventories. The first batch of that money has trickled down to states and has been distributed to contractors like Plants & Goodwin. It’s easily the most funding ever spent to address the problem, but both states and pluggers are now facing hurdles as they begin to identify and plug wells.

The state oil and gas regulators responsible for issuing well-plugging contracts are typically understaffed. As a result, the pace of contract assignment in some states has been inconsistent, making it difficult for plugging companies to staff up and plan ahead. Well pluggers are also few and far between. Since oil operators tend to avoid the costly work of well capping, the service has remained a niche industry. Plugging companies have also struggled to find trained workers, not to mention the specialized equipment required to plug wells. Along the way, some states have handed out millions of dollars in contracts to a subsidiary of an oil company with hundreds of compliance violations.

All the while, the oil and gas industry continues to spawn new orphan wells — magnitudes more than the number being plugged. Between 2015 and 2022, more than 600 oil and gas companies filed for bankruptcy, leaving thousands of wells unplugged. Market downturns affecting oil prices during the mid-2010s pushed many operations to insolvency. And even in times of industry booms, wells near the end of their production lifespans often end up in the hands of small oil patch operators with tight margins. Further, state laws requiring companies to post collateral for their wells in case of bankruptcy are meager. This combination of weak rules and bankruptcies has caused orphan well inventories to balloon. For example, Pennsylvania’s list of 20,000 orphan wells grows by about 400 each year; the state has plugged just 73 wells with the federal money that began to arrive last year.

In the muddy pasture in northwest Pennsylvania, Mong was trying to unclog his way to the well’s bottom. Using a rig attachment called a cherry picker — imagine a four-foot steel clothespin — he worked to spear unknown detritus from the depths. Next to the hole lay 30-foot-long clay-frosted tubes of steel casing already hauled out. After reducing the borehole to a hollow dirt cavern, the pluggers will pour cement until it nearly fills to the surface and top the rest of the way with gravel, insulated by steel casing to protect groundwater. They will then decapitate the casing to a few feet below ground and cover it with dirt.

For the pluggers, the work is a bespoke combination: a little science and a lot of art. Sharp intuition, engineering know-how, grit, and luck imbue each effort. One capping can take anywhere from three days to three months, sometimes costing more than $100,000.

Clifton Lunn is part of the team that, along with Denny Mong, must muscle through the orphaned well blockage. Will Peischel / Grist

A lot needs to happen to orphan wells before they’re plugged — at least on paper. The state has to identify them, the threat they pose, the costs to plug them, and search for any elusive owner to pin the costs on. And while that’s a process states have handled for many years, most state plugging programs have relatively small budgets and staff compared to the well inventories. Now, federal funding is compelling those programs to exponentially increase the number of well-capping contracts, an impossible task without bigger staffs and nimbler processes.

In a normal year, the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), which regulates oil and gas production in the state, might contract plugging for 30 wells. According to former CalGEM employees, decommissioning even that number of wells had the agency running on all cylinders.

“Available staffing for oversight was definitely a major limiting factor,” said Dan Dudak, who was the Southern District Deputy of CalGEM from 2011 to 2020, and now acts as a consultant on well-plugging projects. In just the last five years, the department “lost a lot of their institutional knowledge” in three different leadership changes, he said. Nonetheless, CalGEM revealed an $80 million project last July to cap 378 wells with funding from state and federal money along with industry fees.

Other states also have catching up to do. One 2022 Ohio state audit observed that its Department of Natural Resources struggles to meet orphan well program spending targets, in part due to staffing shortages. “[T]he Division can only increase efforts dedicated to well plugging preparation work as fast as it can recruit, train, and hire permanent employees,” the audit claimed, recommending that the agency double its staff to post plugging contracts in a more timely fashion and consider outsourcing the task of drafting contracts.

Pennsylvania has 70 well inspectors and a tally of around 20,000 orphan wells. According to Neil Shader, spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, the agency is considering hiring more inspectors to increase its oversight. Earlier this year, the state legislature approved a $5.75 million budget increase for DEP, some of which may boost its well plugging contract capacity.

Still, the pace of contract creation in Pennsylvania has put pluggers in a precarious place. Plants said that when Pennsylvania received $25 million in its first batch of federal funding, he staffed up. A torrent of contracts were awarded but then stopped — leading from feast to famine. A six-month gap meant furloughs and mothballing equipment. “It costs contractors a tremendous amount of money to do all that,” he said. “You end up creating an incentive to not scale at all, just stay small.”

Plants & Goodwin, which is headquartered in Bradford, Pennsylvania, has operated as an oil service company since 1970, but it pivoted to specialize in well-plugging operations in 2015. Will Peischel / Grist

To expedite aspects of the contract-drafting process, DEP has signaled that it may outsource some of that work. Meanwhile, Ohio is putting some of its federal money into an expedited process called the Landowner Passover Program, where approved landowners who find orphan wells on their land may act as a surrogate for the state, awarding a contract to a plugger that Ohio will pay for.

Ohio has 44 contractors on its rolls and utilizes a pre-approval process for its pluggers to maintain quality control. Pennsylvania’s DEP is considering adopting its own vetting process, according to Shader, the agency spokesperson. Without it, there is no central parapet to separate under-qualified contractors from federally funded plugging. “There are not enough defined rules in place,” said Plants. “And even the rules that are there don’t get followed so well all the time.”

Not much stands in the way of a corner-cutting contractor. In remote pockets of Appalachia, improperly dumping chemical fluids from a site or shoddy plug job could go unnoticed. “I think it’s even less likely to get checked now,” Plants said. “Because nobody wants to limit the pool of potential well pluggers. We need to get more pluggers involved — whether that plugging is being done correctly or not.”

Last year, Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary Kurt Klapkowski of the DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas Management addressed that anxiety by announcing that parties with significant outstanding violations, such as contractors with a poor service record or operators with environmental infractions, wouldn’t receive state contracts. “I feel pretty confident that we would not be issuing contracts to operators that had significant outstanding violations — either on the contracting side of things or on the environmental protection side,” he said.

For a plugger, non-compliance could mean illegal dumping or improperly sealing a well; for an operator, it might mean abandoning a well without plugging it. But such policies can be difficult to implement when oil and gas companies sometimes operate through a bevy of subsidiaries in multiple states.

In December of last year, the Pennsylvania DEP awarded Next LVL Energy contracts to plug 30 wells in the state. The company is a subsidiary of Diversified Energy, an energy giant that has amassed a massive number of wells at the end of their lives, stoking fears that the company is likely to orphan them. According to one class action lawsuit against Diversified in West Virginia, around 10 percent of its 23,309 wells in the state are technically abandoned but unplugged. Just this year Pennsylvania inspectors slapped the operator with around 300 new or unresolved operational violations. (The state DEP didn’t respond to a request for comment on Next LVL’s contracts.)

Ohio has also given half of its first installment of federal money, $12.5 million, to Next LVL Energy to oversee the plugging of as many as 320 wells. To the southeast, West Virginia has given the company a similar sum to plug 100 wells. Spokespeople for both state environmental agencies defended their decisions, noting that they followed state and federal guidelines while selecting pluggers. “We will keep a close eye on implementation,” said Andy Chow, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “Should any violations in this contract be discovered or otherwise come to our attention we will review those actions.”

In West Virginia, Next LVL isn’t plugging any wells associated with Diversified, according to Terry Fletcher, chief communications officer with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. “At the time the contracts were awarded, Next LVL had no outstanding environmental violations in the state,” he added.

Finding qualified workers for the oil field is no easy feat, either. The last decade has seen drops in oil prices that rendered many fossil fuel companies insolvent, along with a shift to shale exploration, which requires fewer workers. As a result, job openings have dwindled and many qualified workers have left Appalachia.

Plugging wells also requires skilled labor. Thus, the limited number of qualified workers is in high demand. That’s good for wages, but without a large workforce to fill positions as states push out contracts with increasing frequency, another problem arises: “You just get this arms race for the same small pool of workers,” said Plants. “That’s not actually helpful for scaling or expanding the supply side of this business.”

Troy Hadfield (left) uses a forklift to convert the area of a finished orphan well project from a muddy worksite to a walking trail. Will Peischel / Grist

Plants has brought in experienced pluggers from Texas oil fields to help train up a new generation of skilled Pennsylvania hands. “We want to develop a local workforce that understands this work,” he said. But “you can’t just put whole crews of inexperienced people out there.”

There’s a lot of on-the-job training, but that extra work advances his vision. Some of his most recent hires came from area high schools and technical schools, where he has made a pitch: “We want to give you a long-term career.”

Bronson Knapp, who owns Hagen Well Services in Ohio, has faced similar challenges. “The good old farm boy is hard to find,” he said. A worker shortage is one of the reasons Ohio is behind on well pluggings. The state has awarded new contracts even as work from previous contracts hasn’t been completed. “We awarded 380 wells this year, but our contractors are still 400 wells behind us,” said Jason Simmerman, the orphan well program engineer with the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Rigs used to plug wells can be hard to come by, too. Drilling technology may advance, but orphan well-plugging is frozen in time. The tech required is often vintage, which means pluggers are on the prowl for a shrinking number of rigs that may be older than the wells they plug. It’s not unusual for a plugger in New York to look as far as Texas for a used rig. Mong’s rig was from the 1950s. Another rig at a nearby work site was manufactured in 1981 and welded to the bed of a Vietnam War-era military truck.

Cory Copp stands behind the team’s 1981 well plugging rig, attached to the back of a Vietnam War-era truck. Will Peischel / Grist

On the whole, a few recent high school graduates on Plants’ payroll might not seem like bellwethers of a next-generation workforce. But some experts watching the federal orphan well program contend that a well-plugging wave could revive regions whose economic fates are tied to dwindling resource extraction sectors. “The most positive thing that could happen is that we begin to get more companies plugging wells, especially in rural, distressed areas to help their local economies,” said Ted Boettner, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a think tank focused on economic and environmental sustainability in Appalachia.

“Oil and gas industries have lost thousands of jobs over the last decade,” he told Grist. “This is helping people who lose their jobs” and providing “a way for people to transition into cleaning up this mess of the last 150 years.”

The federal program includes requirements and guidance to help ensure that the work on the ground benefits workers. In order to qualify for funding, states must ensure that plugging contracts meet standards outlined by the Davis-Bacon Act, a federal law that guarantees government-funded labor matches average pay rates for similar work in a region, known as the prevailing wage.

Failure to follow the federal government’s requirement risks its scrutiny. For example, last year the GOP-led Pennsylvania legislature passed a law dictating how much a contractor might receive to plug a well as part of Pennsylvania’s orphan well program. The amounts allocated were a fraction of typical costs, likely leaving contractors unable to pay their workers the prevailing wage. With federal money tied up in the program, the Department of Interior filed a brisk response warning that the law could threaten Pennsylvania’s ability to comply with program standards and that the state could be cut off from federal funding.

In Ohio, Davis-Bacon requirements appear to have an effect on well-capping work not funded by the federal program. Though the Buckeye State doesn’t have any wage requirement for general well-plugging work, cappers who have taken contracts appear to be paying higher wages — whether or not the job is federally funded. “Because nobody wants to make one wage one day and another the next day, our contractors that are working on our federal program are taking that perspective and paying those wages across the board now,” said Simmerman, Ohio’s orphan well program engineer.

After tubing and other detritus are pulled from orphan wells, workers flush out lingering oil and gas with water pulled from giant containers like this one. Will Peischel / Grist

Out west, California is working to nurture a workforce at a much larger scale. Last year, the state legislature passed a law directing the California Workforce Development Board, or CWDB, to launch apprenticeship programs to train new classes of well pluggers. It could become a model for skilled labor creation. Its first pilot program is using the expertise of a Kern County well-capping company, California Legacy Well Services, which is creating a plugging curriculum to fold into existing training provided by Local 12, the International Union of Operating Engineers. As a result, union-affiliated labor will represent part of the well-plugging workforce.

The thinking is two-pronged: access to quality jobs and layoff mitigation. That means offering good work to skilled laborers vulnerable to the energy transition. “So rather than just worry about the loss of jobs, it’s an opportunity to think about the new jobs for trades workers,” said Tim Rainey, executive director of CWDB. The program is in the early stages, but it offers a glimmer of what an effective orphan well program could yield.

Organized labor in California’s oil fields is of two types: industrial unions and trades unions. Members of industrial unions cultivate skills on a worksite, while trades unions learn the ropes through training apprenticeships like the ones CWDB is developing.

A quirk in California law may lock out the industrial unions. The law requires “a skilled and trained workforce” for capping jobs, an innocuous-sounding phrase that refers to highly technical requirements in the state labor code that disqualify oil workers from industrial unions such as the United Steelworkers, or USW.

Norman Rogers, a spokesperson and member of USW Local 675 in Southern California, called the legislative sleight of hand “a control job.” Trades unions “have a larger workforce and are able to influence the political landscape,” he said. “They can have all sorts of people go to lobby.”

By expanding the language to characterize eligible workers as “skilled and trained or covered by a labor management agreement,” the law could tap into tens of thousands of union workers represented by USW, Rogers said.

The question of who dominates the green jobs of tomorrow remains an open one. Despite the many bottlenecks, the orphan well program could be an attractive coda to the fossil fuel era if it benefits workers.

“We drilled the first oil well in America,” said James Kunz, an administrator at the Pennsylvania Foundation for Fair Contracting, who has worked to ensure favorable wages in state capping contracts. “We have the scars of that and a real opportunity.”

This article originally appeared in Grist at https://grist.org/energy/abandoned-oil-well-job-solution-pennsylvania/.

Grist is a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at Grist.org

Inside the rough-and-tumble race to clean up America’s abandoned oil wells is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Government Shutdown Would Strain Overburdened Rural Food Shelves

“Demand went up, prices went up and supply went down, and access to some of the COVID resources that food banks had disappeared,” he says. “So it’s like everything hit them simultaneously.” If House Republicans decide to shut down the government this week, the state’s already stressed food pantries will likely face a surge in […]

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Minnesota implements new Native history requirement for teachers

Minnesota teachers renewing their license must now undergo training about Native American history and culture.

The Legislature passed a law this year requiring training for K-12 teachers about the “cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians, with particular emphasis on Minnesota Tribal Nations,” in order to renew their license.

The requirement goes into effect for less-experienced teachers Tuesday and the remainder of the teaching corps Jan. 1.

Teachers already must fulfill multiple requirements to renew their licenses, including training on suicide prevention and reading preparation.

In addition, they are required to undergo cultural competency training — which includes instruction on how to best serve Native American students — to renew their licenses, but Native American-specific training will eventually be its own requirement.

The Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board is working on the Native American history rollout and exactly what the training will include. Until then, teachers can fulfill the new requirement under the existing cultural competency training.

In his education budget, Gov. Tim Walz recommended Native American history renewal requirement for teachers and argued the current cultural competency requirements for teachers didn’t dedicate enough time specifically to Native American history.

“Given the rich history of American Indians and their contemporary contributions, more time and resources should be provided to Minnesota educators,” Walz’s budget proposal stated.

Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, said in a statement that it supports the new training requirement, but noted it adds an additional burden for teachers.

“Minnesota’s Indigenous history is complex, rich and long, and it has been far too often ignored in both U.S. and Minnesota history lessons,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht. “At the same time, we have to be aware of the extra time and effort each new requirement adds to the plates of educators, and give them the adequate time and training they need to address these important pieces of delivering a well-rounded education.”

The state licensing board said it will release more information about the requirement’s specifics in the coming weeks.

Minnesota’s academic standards for students include material about the cultural heritage and contributions of Native Americans and the tribal nations with which Minnesota shares borders. The Legislature this past session also mandated school districts offer curriculum on the Holocaust, the genocide of Indigenous people and the removal of Native Americans from Minnesota.

This article was first published in the Minnesota Reformer. 

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