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

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

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.

A chunk of Grand Teton Park could go up for auction. Price tag: $62M

UPDATE: This story was updated at 8:25 p.m. on Oct. 2 to include remarks from Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper). —Ed.

The state of Wyoming has taken a key step toward unloading its last remaining 640 acres locked within the borders of Grand Teton National Park. The land, in the heart of Jackson Hole, could be sold at auction.

Progress toward the sale of the so-called Kelly Parcel came late Monday, when the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments announced it was initiating a land disposal in conjunction with releasing a detailed analysis of the square-mile property.

“This is one of the very first steps in the process, and there certainly is a long way to go,” Wyoming Office of State Lands Deputy Director Jason Crowder told WyoFile. “It definitely has consideration by the [State Board of Land Commissioners] still in front of it.”

The Kelly Parcel is located along the eastern edge of Grand Teton Park, though it also shares boundaries with the Bridger-Teton National Forest and National Elk Refuge.

The Kelly Parcel, center, is bordered on three sides by Grand Teton National Park. Its east border is shared with the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and there’s also a sliver of land touching the National Elk Refuge. (Teton County GIS)

The State Board of Land Commissioners — the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction and the auditor — are scheduled to review the issue at its Dec. 7 meeting. If the board approves of the proposed sale, it’ll direct the Office of State Lands to proceed with putting the pricy acreage surrounded by federal land to auction.

“Any sale of state lands, by constitution, has to be sold at public auction,” Crowder said, “unless we do an exchange or unless the Legislature gives the board authorization to do a direct sale.”

The Wyoming Legislature has enabled direct sale of state land to the U.S. Interior Department — the National Park Service’s government parent — twice in the past. In 2016, a $46 million sale was completed for 640 acres in the Antelope Flats. In 2012, the state sold off an 86-acre tract near the Snake River.

Negotiations between the Interior Department and Wyoming about state-owned land in Grand Teton began in 1949, the year before the park was enlarged.

All that remains is the Kelly Parcel.

The 640 acres has an estimated value of $62.4 million, according to the OSLI analysis. Past appraisals, in 2010 and 2016, put the value at $45 million, then $39 million. The tract is bisected by Gros Ventre Road, but its development potential is inhibited by a scenic easement lining the road.

There are no statutes currently on the books enabling a direct sale of the Kelly Parcel to the Interior Department, Crowder said.

But lawmakers have attempted to facilitate the sale in the past. As recently as 2021, former Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) ran a bill that would have authorized a direct sale, though it fell apart after Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) successfully passed an amendment that set the floor price at $3.2 billion — around 82 times the appraised value at the time.

Sota the pudelpointer traverses a snowy ridge in the Bridger-Teton National Forest immediately east of the state’s inholding in Grand Teton National Park, a tract known as the Kelly parcel. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The Wyoming Legislature has also unsuccessfully tried to wring more money out of the parcel. In 2019, a bill died that would have allowed for economic development on the tract — even a casino.

Securing permission for a direct sale could be difficult during the Legislature’s upcoming budget session, at least judging by one lawmaker’s reaction.

“Why would Gov. Gordon bargain sale for our most priceless 640 acres of state School Trust lands to the Biden Administration?” Harshman, a former two-time House speaker, told WyoFile in a text. “Wyoming people will be shocked.”

It’s unclear if Grand Teton National Park and its nonprofit partners have secured $62 million in the instance that the Legislature approves a direct sale to the Interior Department.

WyoFile was unable to reach Teton Park officials before this story was published.

Any major development, either an auction or direct sale, will not occur until 2024 at the earliest, Crowder said.

“We’re required to advertise it for four consecutive weeks before we go to a public auction, if [the board] approves us to move in that direction,” he said.

The post A chunk of Grand Teton Park could go up for auction. Price tag: $62M appeared first on WyoFile.

USDA’s Vilsack Warns of Rural Fallout with Government Shutdown Likely

With House Republicans delaying progress on 2024 budget negotiations under an October 1, 2023 deadline, the effects of a government shutdown if an agreement is not reached could be a swift and brutal blow to rural America, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“The extreme Republicans pushing this… represent a small minority that don’t seem to care if the government shuts down,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a Daily Yonder interview. “Farmers, ranchers, and producers all across rural America are going to feel this.”

There are 12 appropriations bills that dictate spending for federal agencies that require annual approval from Congress. Negotiations over how much the government should spend is always a lengthy process, but this year especially so, as House Republicans quarrel over how much money should be allocated to agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Interior, Justice, and more.

According to Vilsack frustration toward the group of Republicans stalling progress on this year’s budget is acute. And the drawn-out negotiations could mean spending will grind to a halt come this Sunday, October 1.

Government support payments and loan applications for farmers would be put on pause, according to Vilsack. Benefits from the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program could end as early as next week, and benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would dry out at the end of October.

According to 2018 data from the Food Research and Action Center, rural Americans rely the most on SNAP benefits. Food banks would be the only other option for those who rely on these benefits, a support system not always accessible to the country’s most rural communities.

The five-year Farm Bill is set to expire on October 1. Congress is likely to extend the lifespan of the bill until the end of 2023, but Vilsack warned that progress would be slow if policymakers are also contending with a government shutdown.

“It slows [the Farm Bill] down because people aren’t there to work on it,” Vilsack said. “We’ll be focused on getting the government back open, and maintaining funding for the offices that service farmers and ranchers.” Commodity prices could skyrocket with a delayed Farm Bill, affecting food prices for consumers across the country. These are just some of the concerns at the top of policymakers’ minds as negotiations on the 2024 budget continue to stall.

Thousands of federal employees could be furloughed come Monday without pay, national forests and parks would be closed, and new homebuyers would be unable to access loans. Many publicly funded assistance programs that require annual budget approval would halt payments if their money ran out during the shutdown as well.

“It’s so unfortunate that a small handful of Republican extremists want this when no one else does,” Vilsack said.

The post USDA’s Vilsack Warns of Rural Fallout with Government Shutdown Likely appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Wyoming is killing Colorado’s wolves, again, and the state’s keeping it secret

At least one wolf from what is likely the first breeding pack Colorado has seen in 80 years wandered into Wyoming in 2023 and was killed.

That’s according to credible reports from ranchers and other stakeholders interviewed by WyoFile.

No Wyoming or Colorado official, however, has confirmed the wolf killing.

Wyoming claims the information is confidential and that not even Colorado wildlife officials have a right to know.

An 11-year-old state law intended to conceal the identity of people who legally kill wolves in Wyoming is keeping Wyoming officials tight lipped. The statue is being interpreted so broadly that Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials say they cannot share anything more specific than the aggregate number of wolves that have been killed in the state’s 53-million-acre “predator zone” — an area that covers roughly 85% of Wyoming. So if a wolf dies well outside of Canis lupus’ normal range in southern Wyoming, even the general region of the killing is considered confidential.

In other words, state officials say merely confirming a wolf killing in a Wyoming county — or even the southern half of the state — would run afoul of the law because that information could somehow identify the person who pulled the trigger.

“We talked to our attorney, and she said basically that we cannot provide [wolf deaths] by location or areas like we used to,” said Dan Thompson, the large carnivore supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It’s all aggregate.”

Wolf 1084, pictured, was a member of Wyoming’s Snake River Pack before departing south and dispersing all the way to Colorado. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

The statute, and the Wyoming Attorney General’s reinterpretation of it, are hamstringing Colorado’s ability to monitor its historic and closely watched North Park Pack — founded by a known Wyoming migrant wolf, 1084M. The pack, which established a home range in northern Colorado’s Jackson County, has continued to eke out an existence on the eve of the expected broader reintroduction of wolves to the Centennial State, now just months away.

Although Wyoming law has stymied the free flow of information about North Park Pack wolves when they’ve crossed an invisible state border and died, word has gotten out anyway. Last October three black subadult female members of that pack wandered north and were legally killed by hunters, an incident that drew headlines and triggered threats of a lawsuit. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials learned of the suspected losses to the pack from a private landowner, spokesman Travis Duncan told WyoFile in an email.

There are no seasons or other limitations on killing wolves in Wyoming’s predator zone — eradication is openly the goal — but the state does require that successful hunters and trappers submit reports notifying authorities of their kills. Colorado officials have learned that their counterparts in the Equality State are unwilling to share those reports, or any information within them.

“Wyoming Game and Fish said they cannot provide those data to us,” Duncan said in the email.

But the southern Wyoming wolf deaths — of animals likely associated with the North Park Pack — continued this year. Colorado didn’t receive any reports of the deaths this time, Duncan said.

‘Everybody knows about it’

It’s no secret that wolves have been killed recently in Carbon County, not far from the southern border, said Pat O’Toole of the Ladder Ranch. A neighboring Wyoming rancher, he said, killed a wolf “a couple months ago.”

“Everybody knows about it,” O’Toole said. “I’ve seen pictures of it.”

O’Toole’s not thrilled that his Little Snake River-area ranch, which straddles the state line, has once again become the domain of the wolf, a sometimes difficult-to-live-with large carnivore that was eliminated from Colorado’s southern Rockies by the mid-1940s. Wolves that gain a taste for domestic animals often kill until they’re killed themselves, he said, and they make livestock ranching more difficult.

Pat O’Toole stands at the confluence of Battle Creek and the Little Snake River in 2016. (Phil Taylor)

O’Toole was not surprised that likely North Park Pack wolves haven’t lasted long once they’ve crossed the state line. With a step across that line, a wolf goes from a “State Endangered” classification — fully protected from hunting — to a “predator” that can be shot on sight without a license by anyone.

“This valley is full of hunters, and boy, it’d be a pretty smart wolf to make it in this valley,” O’Toole said. “Everybody here drives around with a rifle in their pickup because that’s the culture.”

Wyoming’s predator zone and unregulated hunting near the state line has hampered wolves’ ability to establish in Colorado.

“Essentially, one state is blocking a national success story from happening,” said Matt Barnes, a rangeland scientist who was a member of the advisory group that helped shape Colorado’s wolf management plan. “It is absolute night and day, either side of this invisible line, which is always not good for wildlife.

In 2020, Colorado’s first modern-day wolf pack found a home range off to the west in Moffat County, not far from the Wyoming border. The pack wasn’t confirmed to have produced a litter, like the North Park Pack has, and it also didn’t last long. Three wolves from the pack were reportedly shot in Wyoming, right near the state line. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers investigated that boundary killing incident, WyoFile has confirmed, and the inactive case was recommended for closure. But the federal agency didn’t formally close the investigation, leaving the files unretrievable through the Freedom of Information Act.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists placed GPS collars on two wolves in North Park on Feb. 2, 2023. CPW’s team was doing wolf capture and collaring work in conjunction with elk and moose capture efforts for ongoing research studies in the area. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

And now the North Park Pack has been cut down by legal hunting across the state line. In February, Colorado Parks and Wildlife captured and collared two males: wolves 2101 and 2301. Even if reports continue to come in, any other wolves remaining in the state are unconfirmed.

“CPW is currently only aware of these two wolves in Colorado,” Duncan said in an email. “There was no evidence of reproduction in 2023.”

Reintroduction looms

Biologically, it likely won’t make much difference if the North Park Pack is hunted out of existence. The reason is that Colorado is months away from initiating its plan to reintroduce wolves to the southern Rockies. That plan, set in motion by voters in 2020, is to import 30 to 50 wolves west of the Continental Divide at least 60 miles from Colorado’s borders with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is looking to reintroduce wolves in the west-central part of the state, well south of where members of the North Park Pack have been dwelling in northern Colorado’s Jackson County. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Wyoming declined to provide wolves to its southern neighbors. Gov. Mark Gordon explained the decision in a statement, saying Wyoming is opposed to Colorado’s wolf reintroduction and “has the scars and lessons learned” from its own wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park nearly three decades ago.

“Wyomingites know all too well the challenges associated with introducing a new large carnivore into an existing ecosystem,” Gordon said. “It does not matter that the wolves may have been a part of the system in generations past; it is still a huge change.”

Montana and Idaho also declined to provide their fellow western state with wolves. But talks are ongoing with Washington and Oregon and northern Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe, reported the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Duncan, at CPW, told WyoFile in the email that he’s “confident” Colorado will gain the cooperation of one or more states or jurisdictions.

“CPW plans to release the first wolves in Colorado this winter,” he said. “We anticipate that we will find a source in time to release wolves prior to the December 31, 2023, deadline.”

Wolf reintroduction was set in motion by Colorado voters in 2020. The populated Front Range tilted the tight vote in favor of reintroduction, but rural western Colorado voters were largely opposed. This sign was located in Walden, Colorado. (Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

Given the looming reintroduction, former federal wolf biologist Mike Phillips isn’t surprised that Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials haven’t made much of historically significant North Park Pack animals getting shot up in an area outside of their control.

“If I was Colorado, I’d have plenty to do without getting in a pissing match with the state of Wyoming,” said Phillips, who was a member of Colorado’s wolf reintroduction advisory panel.

‘It’s crazy’

Still, Phillips described Wyoming’s practice of keeping the wolf deaths classified as a “sad state of affairs.”

“It speaks to just how irrational people are when thinking about gray wolves,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Controversy around the wolf deaths in southern Wyoming have also fueled calls to federally protect Canis lupus across the species’ range in the West.

“It’s intolerable that Colorado’s invaluable, endangered wolves can be secretly gunned down upon entering Wyoming,” Center for Biological Diversity staffer Collette Adkins told WyoFile in an emailed statement. “This travesty reinforces the need to return federal protections to wolves in Wyoming and across the northern Rockies.”

Adkins’ employer already threatened to sue the U.S. Forest Service for not safeguarding wolves on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming, contending Endangered Species Act violations. But the lawsuit didn’t materialize after the Forest Service informed the advocacy group that there was no evidence of “confirmed gray wolf populations, denning or gathering/rendezvous sites identified” on the national forest.

A lone wolf stands out on the horizon near Bondurant in 2017 in this photograph by Wyoming Game and Fish Department employee Mark Gocke. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

As Colorado’s wolf population picks up steam in the years ahead, it’s likely that there will be more incidents of dispersed wolves being legally hunted across the northern border in Wyoming. After the Yellowstone and central Idaho reintroduction in 1995 and ‘96, the population of 66 reintroduced wolves grew rapidly, roughly tenfold within six years. Unless the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office reinterprets the statute yet again, exactly how many of Colorado’s newfound wolves meet their end in Wyoming is likely to remain a mystery.

A bill protecting the identity of legal wolf hunters made it through the Wyoming Legislature in 2012 in the aftermath of an Idaho wolf hunter’s identity being posted online, which led to harassment.

There are two applicable sentences in the legislation: “Any information regarding the number or nature of wolves legally taken within the state of Wyoming shall only be released in its aggregate form and no information of a private or confidential nature shall be released without the written consent of the person to whom the information may refer. Information identifying any person legally taking a wolf within this state is solely for the use of the department or appropriate law enforcement offices and is not a public record …”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik in June 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Until recently, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department did not interpret the statute quite so broadly. Just this spring, for example, Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told WyoFile that, “We do know of harvest down in southern Wyoming in the predator area in 2022.”

It’s unclear what changed.

Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King did not specify how releasing wolf mortality data on a regional scale — which the department isn’t doing — would violate the statute. “The Department does not comment on the legal advice we have received,” he said in an email.

Journalist-turned-attorney Bruce Moats in his emptied-out Cheyenne office in January 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Recently retired longtime First Amendment attorney Bruce Moats suspects that the attorney general’s interpretation of the statute runs afoul of the Wyoming Public Records Act and legal precedent, which established that agencies have an obligation to “segregate material, redact exempt material and turn over the rest.”

“I think that applies here,” Moats said. “Why can’t you redact the names?”

The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office did not respond to WyoFile’s request for an interview.

The post Wyoming is killing Colorado’s wolves, again, and the state’s keeping it secret appeared first on WyoFile.

Spurred by government funding, controversial waste-to-energy plants eye West Virginia

JACKSON COUNTY — When she first bought her house in Millwood nearly 20 years ago, Michelle Roach saw it as an investment for her family.

“I plan to give my property to my son,” she said. “That’s supposed to be his, and I’ve been telling him that since he was little.”

But now, for the first time, she’s reconsidering that plan in light of a plant to turn medical waste into energy proposed off state Route 2 — roughly a mile from her home.

“I don’t want to leave. I love it up there,” she said. “But that’s what everybody is talking about.”

Spurred by federal incentives meant for clean energy, these kinds of waste-to-energy facility proposals are becoming more common, especially in West Virginia. A plan for a plant in Follansbee was scuttled earlier this year, and there are two other projects in the works, including the proposed plant in Millwood.

There are some environmental benefits to these types of facilities. Waste incinerators are viewed as an alternative to landfills, and have been lauded as an eco-friendly substitute method for disposing of waste.

Millwood resident Michelle Roach pulls up on a map on her phone to show the proposed location of Thunder Mountain’s medical waste incinerator. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi.

But residents like Roach are concerned about what they see as a lack of transparency in the process, and they’re worried about the potential environmental and health effects of a new waste incinerator. Because these sites are proposing to use relatively uncommon chemical processes, Heather Sprouse, an organizer with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the consequences of the facility’s potential emissions are unknown.

“One of the challenges here is that many people don’t have understanding or no access to even understand what the long-term impacts can be because there’s very little information available about cumulative impacts,” Sprouse said.

A plan to convert needles and syringes into energy

The proposal by Thunder Mountain Environmental Services would build the medical waste facility in a warehouse space off Point Pleasant Road, right outside of Ravenswood.

The facility would dispose of solid medical waste by converting it into energy through gasification — a process that converts waste into synthetic gas, which can then be used to produce energy. The company plans to power the facility with that energy. It expects to employ between 15 and 20 people full time, according to Thunder Mountain President Bryan Fennell.

The waste the facility is incinerating will include used medical gloves, paper towels, bandages, needles, syringes, chemotherapy administration supplies, expired or tainted medicines and human or animal tissue or fluids generated during medical procedures. And while it will keep about 1,650 pounds of this waste from going into a landfill every hour, the incinerator will emit 12.29 tons of pollutants into the air annually, according to the permit engineering evaluation.

One of those pollutants is tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, otherwise known as TCDD, one of the most toxic kinds of dioxins.

While the engineering evaluation estimates that the Millwood site will emit less than two tenths of a milligram of TCDD per year, the chemical is a carcinogen — a substance or agent capable of causing cancer — and dioxins can be incredibly harmful even at low emission rates.

“They induce birth defects, they alter the immune responses, and so even exceedingly low concentrations are quite troubling for people,” said West Virginia Sierra Club chair Jim Kotcon, also an associate professor of plant pathology at West Virginia University.

The facility will operate “in strict compliance” with its permits, said Fennell. The site is permitted to emit nine nanograms of TCDD per cubic meter; 90 times greater than the emissions level permitted in the European Union.

Medical waste-to-energy facilities: An emerging trend

The proposal by Thunder Mountain Environmental Services marks the second recent attempt by an out-of-state company to establish a medical waste-to-energy facility in West Virginia.

“It does seem like we’re seeing this as a trend, and it looks like Central Appalachia might be kind of the bullseye for how these facilities are developing throughout the nation,” Sprouse said.

Concerns over medical waste-to-energy facilities in the state began following the proposal of a facility in Follansbee last year by Empire Green Generation. The out-of-state company proposed using pyrolysis — a process that thermally decomposes material into combustible gas — to convert medical waste into gaseous fuel. The company dropped the project following opposition from residents and city officials.

A June announcement by Gov. Jim Justice of another waste-to-energy facility, this time in Eastern Kanawha County, has only further heightened concerns.

Sprouse credits the sudden boom to state and federal governments incentivizing such facilities.

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act included a variety of incentives to promote clean energy and reduce carbon emissions. Some of those benefits were aimed at encouraging the commercialization of carbon capture and storage and hydrogen hubs.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 also allocated funds to invest in projects utilizing hydrogen technology in an effort to help the country transition to a zero-carbon economy.

“These tax credits are available for a variety of circumstances, but we’re seeing that it does create an environment where for business owners it can be ever more profitable for them to engage in this waste incineration technology,” Sprouse said.

While it’s unclear whether the Millwood or Follansbee facilities would qualify for the incentives, the interest in the capture of carbon from waste-to-energy plants has grown over the past decade, according to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

A community effort to educate

Millwood resident Henry Ligier, sat in his den, flipping through a stack of papers in his lap. A few stray papers were scattered around him, while his wife Adelle perched on a seat nearby, her own documents in hand.

“I’ve been doing a lot of research in reference to how this whole process works,” Ligier said. While he’s not an engineer, he previously worked at a recycling plant as a safety director before retiring. Over the past few weeks, he’s read the DEP’s engineering evaluation for the facility, researched the proposed processes and watched videos on the technology.

“I understand the recycling business and I understand safety,” he said. “I’m trying to learn this, and what I’m learning I’m passing on to all the community.”

Henry and Adelle Ligier go through research they’ve collected on waste-to-energy plants in their home in Millwood. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi

Most, if not all, of the information the community has on the proposed medical waste facility has come from research by either the Ligiers or Roach, and it’s what they plan to use as they now set their sights on mobilizing opposition in the neighboring town of Ravenswood.

But even as their effort grows, their underlying frustration has too. Despite their research, they still have a lot of unanswered questions and concerns over the overall impacts of a medical waste facility.

“Had we known that this was happening, we would definitely not have moved here,” said Ligier, looking at his wife. The couple moved to West Virginia just two years ago from New Jersey. “We would not have moved here at all.”

For now, whether Thunder Mountain’s plant will open down the road from the Ligier’s house is still unknown. The facility needs three state permits to operate: an alternative treatment technology permit and a commercial infectious medical waste facility permit from the Department of Health and Human Services and an air permit from the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality.

In early August, DHHR’s Office of Environmental Health Services denied two of the permits, saying the facility is classified as a large Hospital Medical Infectious Waste Incinerator, which are prohibited under the state’s Medical Waste Act. The site’s failure to qualify for the exemption to the rule also contributed to the permit denial.

While Fennell says the company hasn’t yet made any decisions, they’re still hoping to continue with the Jackson County project.

Spurred by government funding, controversial waste-to-energy plants eye West Virginia appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

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‘This stuff is killing me’: After decades of delay, new black lung protections come too late for some West Virginia coal miners

Danny Johnson coal dust.

Over a decade into retirement, Danny Johnson still considers himself a coal miner. It was such a part of his identity that when his only daughter got married, he walked her down the aisle wearing his hard hat and mining coveralls.

Whenever Johnson dug into a new part of a mountain, he remembers feeling that he and God were the only ones who had ever seen that part of the earth.

“You’re going where nobody’s ever been,” the 69-year-old said while sitting on his front porch in Mercer County.

But his decades of mining had drawbacks as well. He worked long shifts at various mines in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky — sometimes going over two weeks in a row without a day off. He missed countless birthdays and graduations of his two children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

And the job took a severe toll on his health. When Johnson was 20, a 20-foot-long rock fell on his face, requiring him to get more than 100 stitches through his face and mouth. Later, he broke each of his feet and watched a nail fly straight into his pupil.

“I can see big stuff, but I can’t read nothing,” Johnson said, pointing to a blue artificial lens in his eye.

Danny Johnson mining hat.
Danny Johnson proudly displays his mining hat on his porch in Rock, West Virginia. Photo by Roger May.

While those injuries have scarred over, he’s still battling the consequences of the dust that lives in his lungs. Eleven years ago, at the age of 57, Johnson was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe stage of black lung disease.

The disease has been a known threat to coal miners for over a century — it’s taken the lives of tens of thousands of Americans since 1968. While black lung became less common through the 1990s, it’s on the rise again. Now, even middle-aged miners have been diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease.

Severe black lung continues to disproportionately affect central Appalachia; from 2019 to mid-2023, nearly 30% of Americans diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis at federally-funded black lung clinics were West Virginians, according to the Black Lung Data and Resource Center at the University of Illinois Chicago.

That trend is widely attributed to more frequent exposures to silica dust. With the easily-accessible coal already mined, workers often grind through rock embedded with quartz to mine thinner and thinner seams. Grinding that quartz creates silica dust, which is 20 times more toxic than coal dust alone.

Debbie Johnson on her front porch.
Debbie Johnson, a nurse in Mercer County, talks about her husband Danny, a retired coal miner who has been diagnosed with silicosis and black lung disease. Photo by Roger May.

“It’s the silica dust that’s killing them,” Johnson’s wife Debbie said. As a black lung nurse at Bluestone Health Center in Kegley, she’s used to seeing patients like Johnson — miners who get winded from walking up their front porch stairs, on a daily basis.

“Now they’ve got black lung. He’s got black lung,” she said, gesturing to her husband. “A whole lot of them have black lung.”

Danny Johnson talks about the reality of work in the coal mines.

By now, coal workers weren’t supposed to get black lung. Half a century ago, 40,000 West Virginia miners went on strike until Congress passed landmark legislation to “eliminate conditions in mines which cause the disease.” Since then, regulators have also enacted federal rules to further limit workers’ overall dust exposure.

But the lingering and now increasing trend of silica-induced lung disease wasn’t directly addressed until this summer. After decades of delay, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed regulations to set and enforce a stricter limit on silica dust exposure.

Health advocates have expressed mixed feelings about the rule: while many are grateful that MSHA is acting, some are worried about whether the rule as written will actually protect miners.

But most of the people who have worked in coal mines or with coal miners agree: something needs to be done, and it has to be done right. Otherwise, Danny Johnson is confident his fate will be shared by the next generation of miners.

“You work hard for this and that, and everybody’s gonna end up like me — dead,” he said, pointing at his exposed chest. “This stuff is killing me more and more.”

Danny Johnson mask.
Danny Johnson holds a protective mask he wore in the mines for a single shift. It used to be white. Photo by Roger May.

‘It’s horrible to hear him sleep’

At the New River Health Clinic in Oak Hill, 69-year-old retired miner Roy Keith sat across from respiratory therapist Lisa Emery. It was Keith’s first health care visit in years; he was there to see if he qualifies for West Virginia’s black lung benefits program.

Like Danny Johnson, Keith spent decades mining coal underground, and his lungs are a constant reminder of the job’s effect on his health.

“I like to play softball, but I can’t run,” Keith said.

“It’s horrible to hear him sleep,” his partner, Peggy Dickens, told Emery.

Roy Keith black lung test.
Lisa Emery (left) consults Roy Keith (right) on how she’s going to test his breathing for black lung disease. Photo by Allen Siegler.

In her eighth year at New River Health, Emery said she’s been seeing more and more miners in their 30s and 40s with severe black lung. So many have no choice but to keep working the dusty jobs if they want to support their families, she said.

“It just makes me cry every day,” Emery said.

After Emery asked him questions about his breathing, Keith sat in a glass-paneled booth, a machine that tests miners’ lung capacity. In the transparent box, Keith nodded as Emery instructed him to inhale deeply and then exhale as quickly as possible.

Roy Keith Black Lung breathing test
Roy Keith tests his breathing to see if he is eligible for West Virginia state black lung benefits. Photo by Allen Siegler.

In his first few attempts, Keith couldn’t stop coughing, so much so that Emery had to restart the tests. His face vibrated and turned purple as his lungs expelled as much air as they could.

Watching her partner from a seat across the room, Dickens cringed as Keith shook and coughed. Her father was a West Virginia coal miner as well, and he had a silica-caused breathing disease when he died at 49.

“It just reminds me of Daddy,” she said.

Thoughts for a long-overdue problem

UMWA public comment
A United Mine Workers of America member testifies at a Mine Safety and Health Administration public meeting about a proposed silica dust rule. Photo by Allen Siegler.

On an August morning in Beaver, over 100 people filed into the dimly-lit auditorium of MSHA’s National Mine Health and Safety Academy. The agency was holding a hearing on its proposed silica rule and gathering comments from miners, miner advocates and representatives of mining companies.

It was the best opportunity for coal miners from central Appalachia, people like Terry Lilly, to share their thoughts directly with MSHA officials. The retired miner sat and spoke softly into a microphone.

“I’d like these young [miners] to realize they need to wake up,” Lilly told the panel, pausing between sentences to catch his breath. “One of these days you’ll be like me, and you can’t walk across the parking lot.”

Terry Lilly
Terry Lilly, a former miner with black lung, stands in a hallway after providing a comment at a Mine Safety and Health Administration meeting in Raleigh County about a proposed silica dust rule. Photo by Allen Siegler.

Lilly spent 30 years working underground and now has only 40% of his lung capacity remaining. He knows the way the mines were set up in the 1980s — and the way some are run now — do not make it easy for workers to avoid disease. Lilly remembers how some mine operators would pressure or force miners like him to manipulate dust samples and hide overexposure.

Terry Lilly talks about the effect black lung disease has had on his day-to-day life.

In fact, independent analyses of MSHA’s own coal mine dust samples show its previous silica dust exposure limits failed to adequately protect miners for decades. An investigation by NPR and PBS Frontline in 2018 analyzed MSHA’s data and found 21,000 instances of overexposure to silica dust since 1986.

While the proposed rule, in its current form, does require regular dust sampling, much of its effectiveness will depend on mining companies sampling their own mines and reporting it accurately and honestly. Although some companies may do that, Lilly worries there are still loopholes.

In the back rows of the auditorium, Roosevelt Neal and John Cline sat next to each other. Neal, a 71-year-old former miner from Raleigh County, received his black lung diagnosis when he was in his 50s. Ironically, he first took a job underground so his family would have access to health insurance.

“I know I got a little age on me, but…I’m out of oxygen just walking up steps,” he said.

At the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beaver, Roosevelt Neal (left) and John Cline (right) watch a Mine Safety and Health Administration public hearing about a silica dust rule proposal. Cline, a longtime lawyer in southern West Virginia, helped Neal, a former coal miner with black lung disease, win his federal black lung benefits case. Photo by Allen Siegler.

When the Department of Labor rejected his request for black lung benefits, Neal turned to Cline, a lawyer and longtime West Virginia labor rights advocate who played a key role in reforming the federal black lung benefits system. With Cline’s help, Neal won the money the federal government ultimately said he deserved.

Since the mid-1980s, Cline has worked with hundreds of West Virginia miners disabled by silica dust. While he views this rule-making process as part of a continued effort to keep miners healthy, he doesn’t forget that in the past, it’s been difficult for MSHA to pass and enforce dust regulations that prevent miners from getting this preventable disease.

“I’ve watched so many people decline and pass from this,” Cline said. “Not only the shortness of breath, but the effect it has on mental health and making life such a terrible struggle.”

Could be here today and gone tomorrow

If Cecil Matney Jr. had made it to Beaver, the 49-year-old Logan County coal miner planned to speak, using the half of his lung function he has left, about some of the activities he can no longer do: hunting, going on walks with his family, kicking a soccer ball around with his 12 and 13-year-old sons.

He may have mentioned that he’s still working as a miner: he can’t afford to retire from the mines despite having a disease that’s slowly killing him. Or that multiple pulmonologists have told him he’ll likely need a lung transplant soon.

“It feels like a ton of bricks laying on your chest when you’re trying to catch your breath,” Matney said. “My wife’s woken me up thinking I was dying because I wasn’t breathing.”

Front yard miner statue.
A coal miner statue in the front yard of Debbie and Danny Johnson in Rock, West Virginia. Photo by Roger May.

He often sees white specks floating in the air underground. The dust continues to cripple many miners like him with progressive massive fibrosis.

Cecil Matney Jr. talks about his uncertain future.

Matney recognizes what an effective silica rule could do for the thousands of West Virginia miners like himself. That is, if regulations are strict enough — and if there’s rigorous oversight and enforcement — to keep coal operators in line.

“If you’re not holding the company responsible for something, they’re gonna break that rule,” Matney said. “They could care less. That’s just the facts about it.”

But for him, the damage has literally crystallized in his lungs. Embedded silica particles and fibrotic tissue sap his ability to breathe. His disease, and his struggle for breath and continued life, is the result of the government’s past failure to act on silica dust.

Matney wants to live long enough to see his sons become adults, to teach them how to act and to watch them have children of their own. But he knows his decades of dust have made these aspirations ambitious at best.

“At the rate I’m going, that’s just something you don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I could be here today and be gone tomorrow. It’s just the way it works.”

Howard Berkes of Public Health Watch and Justin Hicks of Louisville Public Media contributed to reporting this story.

‘This stuff is killing me’: After decades of delay, new black lung protections come too late for some West Virginia coal miners appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Virginia is bailing on a carbon cap-and-invest program. Activists say that might be illegal.

After a blazingly hot stretch of summer in early July 2022, the skies broke open over Buchanan County, Virginia. Floodwaters damaged almost 100 homes and destroyed miles of road in the rural, overwhelmingly low-income mountain towns that dot the region. In the wake of the devastation, local officials spent $387,000 compiling a flood preparedness plan. The multistep blueprint analyzed inundation risks and recommended potential risk-reduction projects.

To develop the proposal, the county tapped the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, a state program that makes hundreds of millions of dollars available for disaster risk analysis and mitigation. They were among the first to do so after money for such things became available in 2021 through proceeds from a carbon-offset program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. But those plans, and the fund, are now in doubt because Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin wants to withdraw from the initiative despite the fact it has provided $657 million for flood preparedness and energy-efficiency programs and reduced the state’s carbon emissions by almost 17 percent.

Critics of such a move say that, beyond curtailing the significant emissions reductions RGGI has already incurred, pulling out will reduce the funding available to help communities prepare for increasingly common extreme weather. It is, they say, a huge mistake and, what’s more, illegal. A group of four Southern environmental nonprofits, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed suit on August 21 to stop it.

“Repealing this regulation is just outside of their authority,” said Nate Belforado, a senior attorney with the center. “If they disagree with it, they have to take it to the General Assembly, and they’ve tried to do that and it hasn’t been successful.”

RGGI, often pronounced “Reggie,” is a collaborative cap-and-invest effort that links 12 states stretching from Maine to Virginia. Power plants in those states must acquire one carbon-emission allowance for every ton of CO2 emitted, with the permissible level of emissions declining over time. Ninety percent of the allowances are sold through quarterly auctions, generating money states can invest as they choose. The program reportedly has slashed power plant emissions in participating states by half and raised nearly $6 billion.

Virginia joined the program two years ago, following the legislature’s 53-45 vote to require participation. Of the $657 million Old Dominion has raised, 45 percent has gone toward the Community Flood Preparedness Fund to help communities with resilience planning and municipal projects. (At least a quarter of the fund’s annual allocations go to low-income communities.) The remainder has financed home weatherization for low-income residents, reducing their utility bills through simple, but often expensive, home improvements.

But Youngkin says the rate increases utilities instituted to cover the costs of participation in the initiative create a financial burden for low-income Virginians. “RGGI remains a regressive tax which does not do anything to incentivize the reduction of emissions in Virginia,” his office told 13th News NOW. (The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.) “Virginians will see a lower energy bill in due time because we are withdrawing from RGGI through a regulatory process.”

The appointed Air Pollution Control Board, of which four of seven members were personally named by Youngkin, voted in June to withdraw from the program by repealing the Community Flood Preparedness Act that made Virginia a part of it in 2020. If the decision stands, the move would take effect December 30. Environmental groups said the proper procedure would have been to introduce a legislative bill and have lawmakers decide. One poll found that 66 percent of Virginians support staying in RGGI; to go against them, Youngkin’s critics argue, is a fundamentally anti-democratic move. A comment period for the withdrawal remains open until Wednesday.

Beyond that criticism, Benforado calls Youngkin’s move frustrating given the progress made under the initiative. “Virginia’s monopoly utilities are required to zero out their carbon by 2050,” he said. “RGGI is the tool that will help us get there.”

Municipalities all over Virginia have used the flood-resiliency funds to shore up infrastructure, draft evacuation plans, and restore blighted wetlands. “Local governments are on the front lines of the climate crisis,” said Mary-Carson Stiff, the executive director of the nonprofit Wetlands Water Watch, which worked with Buchanan County on its flood-resiliency plan. “And they are on their own, to come up with resources to come up with plans and to fund strategies to protect against losses.”

In a 2020 report, the organization noted that most of the state’s rural communities do not have any flooding or other climate resilience plans to speak of. Proponents of RGGI say that before Virginia joined, there was almost no money for disaster preparation and planning, which can be time- and labor-intensive, and requires hiring specialists and conducting environmental studies.

Stiff says Virginia’s use of funds raised through the initiative has been fairly forward-thinking. “We’re unique in the other participating RGGI states where our auction proceeds are being spent on grant programs that are actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

Youngkin’s claim that Virginia ratepayers underwrite the cap-and-invest effort echoes an argument Dominion Energy, the state’s biggest utility, has made. It has said in public comments that the costs it had incurred under RGGI made it necessary to raise rates. It has proposed a rider of $2.29 on top of recent increases caused by fluctuating natural gas prices.

Mayor Justin Wilson of Alexandria, which has benefited from RGGI-funded flood-resiliency projects such as a redesigned downtown waterfront and storm drain expansion, says people were already paying dearly for the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, and that the Community Flood Preparedness Fund has been a godsend. Flooding costs Virginians $400 million per year, according to some estimates.

“I’ve stood in the homes of residents that have seen their livelihoods destroyed,” said Wilson. “The impacts of these storm events are a tax on the community.”

Youngkin has promised alternative sources of funding for flood preparedness and weatherization, and has proposed a $200 million revolving loan fund with a similar purpose. Wilson said he’ll believe there’s a contingency plan when he sees it. All the while, small floods that would have been unusual a couple of decades ago are happening with greater frequency, and the city struggles to keep up. “We have billions of dollars of investment we are gonna have to make,” the mayor said.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the state, Buchanan County’s flood-resilience planning may be complete, but officials must find money for the improvements it outlines. On the anniversary of last summer’s inundation, flood survivors were still fixing up their homes, mourning the woman who had died, wondering where the next resources for them were going to come from, and nervously looking at silt-filled and waste-dammed creeks as summer rain began to fall.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Virginia is bailing on a carbon cap-and-invest program. Activists say that might be illegal. on Aug 28, 2023.

Michaels Workers in Hadley Organize Store’s First-Ever Union

HADLEY — Earlier this month, 24 workers at the Hadley location of the arts-and-crafts retailer Michaels announced their intent to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459. If they win an election before the National Labor Relations Board, they’ll become the very first union recognized at any store in Michaels’ nationwide chain.

On Aug. 10, the workers filed cards with the NLRB, triggering an election. Michaels employee Peter Boots-Faubert works as a framer at the store — a job they said pays minimum wage. In a phone interview, they told The Shoestring that a supermajority of workers have signed union cards. Two of the biggest issues for those workers, they said, were low pay and a lack of staffing.

“A lot of the time, people don’t get breaks,” they said. “There’s not enough people working.”

Michaels did not return an email from The Shoestring requesting comment.

With a population of just over 5,000, Hadley is best known, perhaps, for its asparagus. But now, the town is gaining fame outside of the region for another reason: new union organizing.

Hadley has now become a town of “firsts” in unionizing large corporate chains. Last July, workers at the Trader Joe’s just down the street from Michaels formed the first-ever union at that chain. Their independent union born in Hadley, Trader Joe’s United, went on to organize workers at Trader Joe’s in Minneapolis, MN, Louisville, KY, and Oakland, CA.

Then, this May, workers next door at Barnes & Noble in Hadley voted to unionize with UFCW Local 1459. That was the first stand-alone Barnes & Noble location in the country to unionize; two weeks, prior around 70 workers had voted to unionize a Barnes & Noble College Booksellers location at Rutgers University.

Michaels now becomes the latest store on the Route 9 corridor to unionize. The spark of new organizing led the news outlet More Perfect Union to dub Hadley “Solidarity Central.”

Chase Goates, who works mostly as a cashier at Michaels, said that he and others were inspired by Trader Joe’s United and then further buoyed when they saw Barnes & Noble workers unionize in the same Mountain Farms Mall building as them. Since the Michaels staffers went public with their union, he said the other nearby unions have reached out over social media to connect with them.

“Their support so far has been very positive,” Boots-Faubert said. “I love all of the ‘Hadley is a union town’ stuff going around,” Goates added.

Boots-Faubert said that workers at Michaels are paid very little and have to deal with workplace struggles like not being able to sit down, a lack of janitorial services and difficult hours. Goates added that the company responded to the union effort with “one of the most copy-paste union-busting letters I’ve seen.”

UFCW organizers Drew Weisse and Gillian Petrarca told The Shoestring that the union will represent all non-managerial workers at the Michaels location.
Weisse said that Trader Joe’s United had a big impact on both the Barnes & Noble and Michaels workers who decided to unionize.

“Once you see retail locations start to move, other workers at smaller companies or less prominent ones say, ‘Oh, we can do that too,’” Weisse said.

Michaels describes itself at the largest arts-and-crafts retailer in North America. Filings with the NLRB show that Michaels has hired a lawyer from the firm Ogletree Deakins, which is known for the “union avoidance” services it provides clients.

Photo by Mike Mozart

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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