Cannabis manufacturer to open growing facility in Alleghany County
A national cannabis products manufacturer is preparing to open a new production facility in Alleghany County to help supply Virginia’s medical marijuana market.
Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries’ products include botanical cannabis — the basic flower form of cannabis — as well as cannabis-based items such as muscle rubs, tinctures and edibles. It already operates a manufacturing facility in Abingdon and RISE Dispensary medical marijuana locations in Abingdon, Bristol, Christiansburg, Danville, Lynchburg and Salem.
In Alleghany County, GTI is in the final stages of construction work at a recently purchased 300,000-square-foot building. The company declined to say how much it has invested in its new facility.
The company anticipates launching its manufacturing operation there “within the next month or so,” said Jack Page, GTI’s market leader in Virginia.
“It is a rather large building and we are technically only going to be occupying a portion of the building to start with,” Page said. “Market demand will really determine how much of the facility is actually used. This is in response to needing additional space outside of our Abingdon facility.”
The Alleghany site will be used to cultivate cannabis, with different rooms for growing, maturing and drying the plants, as well as places to store nutrients. Material will then be sent to the company’s Abingdon site to be processed into products.
The company plans to start with about 40 employees at the new site. They’ll work in a variety of jobs including “plant-touching roles” such as flower technicians, but also in custodial, maintenance and human resources roles, Page said.
Those jobs will provide attractive new opportunities for Alleghany County residents who might not have previously considered manufacturing employment, said John Hull, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, an economic development organization that helped connect GTI with resources related to workforce recruitment and training as the company considered the location.
“It’s a great career ladder type of opportunity as well,” Hull said. “For instance, young workers can take a role there, learn the manufacturing type of skills, be introduced to that type of environment and then be available for growth in that company but also other opportunities in the larger region.”
Green Thumb Industries has more than 4,000 employees across the company. The Alleghany site will be its 19th manufacturing facility, and it has more than 80 dispensaries across more than a dozen U.S. markets. It entered the Virginia market in 2021 with the purchase of Dharma Pharmaceuticals, of which Page was a co-founder.
In May, the publicly traded company reported a first-quarter net income of $9.1 million, or 4 cents per share, on $248.5 million in revenue. In an earnings news release, the company noted its revenue was up 2% year over year and said it holds a $185 million cash balance to invest in further expanding its business. It next reports quarterly earnings on Aug. 8.
While GTI has a national presence, all of the products made at the Alleghany facility will serve the Virginia market, Page said.
“Because of the way the federal government still views cannabis, nothing can cross state lines,” he said. “Anything sold in the Virginia medical program is grown and processed and fully sourced in Virginia. And nothing that is made in Virginia is going out of state to another facility.”
Despite state legislation passed in 2021 that allows adults in Virginia to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal recreational use, as well as grow up to four marijuana plants at their own homes, there currently is no licensing or regulatory framework to allow retail sales in the commonwealth.
That means medical dispensaries remain the legal way for Virginians to purchase marijuana, Page said. Qualifying medical patients need a certification from a doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner, plus a valid government ID, to buy cannabis at a medical dispensary.
“The RISE Dispensaries and our counterparts in other parts of the state are the safe way for Virginians to access cannabis,” Page said. “Absent the retail market, there are some dispensaries out there that are providing access to cannabis but not necessarily in a safe manner. That’s an important distinction that I think needs to be made.”
GTI is regulated by the state Board of Pharmacy and, beginning Jan. 1, the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority. The company’s facilities are inspected for compliance with procedures such as those related to inventory and record-keeping, and third-party labs check for the presence of pesticides and heavy metals in products, Page said.
GTI’s location in the Alleghany Regional Commerce Center — a business park between the city of Covington and the town of Clifton Forge, just off Interstate 64 — makes it a good location for distributing products statewide, said Alleghany County Administrator Reid Walters.
If the federal government were to legalize marijuana, GTI would also be well-positioned to ship products into the Midwest, Walters said.
“Legalization is something that’s going to create jobs in Alleghany County and put food on people’s table, and they’re well-paying jobs,” Walters said.
Page said the possibilities for business expansion — whether that’s due to higher demand in Virginia’s medical market or due to potential legalization of recreational sales — “definitely factored into the decision to purchase the Alleghany facility.”
Still, the path to increased legalization, both at the state and federal level, remains unclear.
President Joe Biden last year pardoned all federal offenders convicted of simple marijuana possession and urged state governors to do the same. He also instructed federal officials to review how marijuana is classified under federal law.
In Virginia, a member of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration said earlier this month the governor is “not interested in any further moves towards legalization of adult recreational use marijuana,” according to The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress.
Nonetheless, Green Thumb Industries is looking ahead to the debut of its Alleghany County facility, which, along with the launch of its newest RISE Dispensary in late June in Danville, will further boost the company’s ability to supply the commonwealth with medical cannabis.
Hull, of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, called the new facility a “truly exciting” opportunity for the Alleghany Highlands.
“It further diversifies their industrial base, and combine that with the career-building opportunities there for young workers in the area, we think that it truly is an impactful opportunity,” he said.
At rules hearing, U.S. EPA hears human toll of unaddressed coal ash pollution
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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials were met with photos and tearful stories of deceased loved ones at a national hearing in Chicago on Wednesday regarding the agency’s proposed new rules regulating coal ash.
The proposed rules, released in May, would subject hundreds more coal ash dumps to federal regulations adopted in 2015. But scores of coal ash dumps would remain unregulated, leading residents and advocates to plead with the EPA to further expand the proposed rules and step up enforcement of existing rules.
The environmental injustice of coal ash was clear at the hearing, as residents testified from Native American communities in New Mexico and Nevada, Latino communities in Midwestern cities, and Black communities in Alabama and Tennessee, among others. Multiple people told the EPA officials about their friends and family who had died or suffered from cancer or other illnesses they attribute to coal ash.
The proposed rules would, for the first time, regulate coal ash ponds that were inactive as of 2015. But the rules would still exempt categories of dumps that speakers at the hearing called “arbitrary,” including repositories not in contact with water as of 2015, coal ash dumps at plants closed before 2015 that don’t have a currently regulated pond at the same site, and scattered coal ash used as structural fill.
“Anecdotally we know such sites include playgrounds, schools, roads and other uses that humans regularly come into contact with,” Earthjustice deputy managing attorney Gavin Kearney said of sites where coal ash fill was used.
He noted that there is no comprehensive data regarding coal ash ponds supposedly not in contact with liquid, but experts are sure companies will invoke that exception. Earthjustice and its partners, meanwhile, have identified more than 100 dumps on at least 48 sites that would meet the exception for closed ponds at active power plants without another regulated coal ash impoundment.
“Creating these distinctions undermines confidence in the rule and also gives industry cover, in good faith or bad faith, that they are trying to implement the rule but aren’t sure how it applies to their sites,” Kearney told the EPA representatives.
Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, likewise warned that it “undercuts the credibility of EPA and our government to have to say, ‘See, that over there is not protected because of some highly technical reason that’s not connected to common sense.’”
Attorney Faith Bugel testified that regulating all coal ash on a site without exceptions is critical to avoid companies saying that contamination is from an “alternate source,” including coal ash not covered by the regulations, and hence avoiding responsibility for cleaning it up. “So often (alternative source arguments) have been used as an escape valve from the 2015 rules,” Bugel said.
Drinking water fears
Unregulated coal ash is of particular concern to people who get their water from private wells, as numerous people noted at the hearing.
Environmental groups’ analysis of company data reported under the 2015 rules shows that groundwater is being contaminated at 91% of those coal plant sites. No testing is required around ash not covered by the regulations. But experts say it is even more likely to be contaminating groundwater, since it was dumped when standards around liners and other protections were even lower.
Private water wells are only tested if the owner pays for the testing, which is inaccessible for many. Paul Kysel told the EPA about testing his own well water for contaminants associated with farming and getting clean results. He said he didn’t realize that a partially unlined coal ash pond less than a mile from his home in Pines Township, Indiana, could be contaminating his water with chemicals not detected in that test.
Nearby Town of Pines, Indiana, became a Superfund site due to tons of coal ash from NIPSCO’s Michigan City plant that was used as fill throughout the town. Kysel had moved to the bucolic area from Michigan City, where he was sick of “coal dust, nasty odors, (coal dust) deposits on our vehicles and homes.”
“We thought we were safe,” after moving to Pines Township, Kysel said. “We weren’t safe.”
He and other locals are upset that the proposed new rules would still not cover coal ash mixed with dune sand to build up land on the lakefront coal plant’s site. A lawsuit filed by environmental groups in Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee alleges that Lake Michigan is at serious risk of coal ash contamination if erosion and increasing storms cause the land to collapse, as happened near We Energies’ Oak Creek coal plant in Wisconsin in 2011. Lake Michigan provides drinking water for millions of people in Chicago, Northwest Indiana and Southeast Wisconsin, where multiple coal plants line the shores.
The settlement of that lawsuit spurred the EPA to release the proposed new rules, though the rules don’t address ash used as fill at sites like the Michigan City plant.
“This coal ash is ultimately going to rupture into the lake and cause another catastrophe,” Ashley Williams, executive director of Just Transition Northwest Indiana, said at a rally during the hearing. The owner of a Northwest Indiana microbrewery that relies on Lake Michigan water was among other locals who testified at the hearing.
Earthjustice senior counsel Lisa Evans noted that the new proposed rules would not have covered the ash in Town of Pines nor the ash that spilled into Lake Michigan at Oak Creek.
“The EPA should have prevented this damage decades ago,” Evans testified. “It is irrational and illegal to regulate some leaking dumps and not others.”
Ash was used to build up land and was scattered across plant sites in decades past without record-keeping or regulation. This practice essentially continues in the form of beneficial reuse, where coal ash is legally used as “unencapsulated” structural fill. Advocates have also called for stricter regulation of such reuse, including in Wisconsin, where a vast majority of coal ash is reused and groundwater contamination has been shown as a result.
Chicago has no coal ash ponds or landfills covered by the existing or new proposed rules. But residents worry that as in Michigan City, coal ash was scattered and dumped across the sites of two coal plants that closed in 2012.
Little Village Environmental Justice Organization Executive Director Kim Wasserman noted that the Chicago neighborhood is densely populated by working-class and Latino residents. She echoed demands that new EPA rules require companies to test for historic coal ash scattered around their sites and clean up any they find.
There is not “sufficient information about the risk the site still poses to surrounding communities,” Wasserman said. She added that the community does not trust the current site owner given its botched implosion of the coal plant in 2020, sending a toxic dust cloud across the community in an “environmental catastrophe,” as Little Village resident Edith Tovar called it at the hearing.
A moving problem
Enforcement and expansion of the federal rules will ultimately mean many millions of tons of coal ash will be removed and transported to safer locations. Such transport has already caused environmental injustices, even as it mitigates other risks.
Carlos Torrealba, an organizer with the Climate Justice Alliance in Florida, lamented how coal ash from Puerto Rico is being disposed of in Florida, including in a private landfill in a community home to a large and growing Puerto Rican population. The Energy News Network documented how the ash from Puerto Rico poses risks to multiple communities on its route in the Southeast.
“It’s really mind-boggling because that coal ash site was put next to the homes of Puerto Ricans who had been displaced from Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria,” Torrealba said. “And now they have the double impact of being displaced, seeking refuge and having coal ash dumped next to you.”
Cerissa A. Brown of the People’s Justice Council in Birmingham, Alabama, decried how coal ash from the infamous 2008 Kingston, Tennessee, spill was delivered to a landfill in the largely Black community of Uniontown, Alabama. The Energy News Network reported last year that Uniontown residents have been unable to get answers from the private landfill company about its coal ash management procedures and whether it still accepts coal ash.
“Exposure to environmental pollution such as coal ash in Uniontown has resulted in residents suffering physical harm and an escalating mental health crisis,” Brown said. “This reveals systemic racism rooted in our communities.”
Handling and moving coal ash can pose serious risks to workers if adequate protections aren’t in place.
Betty Johnson’s husband, Tommy, was among the first responders cleaning up the 2008 Kingston spill. She broke down into tears testifying about how he and other workers labored without adequate protective gear. She blames his death last month on his exposure to coal ash. Johnson is among workers who have filed lawsuits against the contractor responsible for the cleanup, citing multiple deaths and serious illnesses. Advocates argue that disasters similar to Kingston could happen if regulations do not require the full cleanup of all coal ash dumps.
“My husband and I had plans when I retired to travel; now he’s in the graveyard,” Johnson said. “And I’m here fighting for my husband and all the workers, everyone who has been hurt by you, because you are not doing your job.”
Julie Bledsoe’s husband also worked on the Kingston cleanup, and would come home blowing coal ash out of his nose, coughing up coal ash, and cleaning coal ash out of his ears with Q-tips.
“Her husband is a hero,” she said of Tommy Johnson. “My husband is a hero. But they were treated like they were trash.”
While the existing federal rules took effect in 2015, the EPA did very little to enforce them until last year, when it issued a number of findings and decisions. Among these, the EPA denied some companies’ requests for extensions to an April 2021 deadline for unlined ponds covered by the rules to stop accepting waste.
The evening before the Chicago hearing, Waukegan residents testified on the EPA’s proposal to deny a request to extend that deadline from plant owner Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of NRG.
While residents support the proposed denial of the extension, they are frustrated that the company has already been allowed to dump for more than two years beyond the deadline. The coal plant closed last summer, but a diesel peaker plant still operates on the site, and residents are concerned that waste from that plant is going into the unlined pond.
NRG spokesperson Dave Schrader said in a statement: “Midwest Generation remains committed to operating its Waukegan facility safely and in compliance with federal and State of Illinois CCR (coal combustion residual) rules and regulations. Midwest Generation disagrees with the U.S. EPA’s recent proposed determination. The mitigation efforts Midwest Generation has implemented at its Waukegan facility were certified compliant by outside experts and are approved methods of monitoring and protecting groundwater. Midwest Generation has ceased burning coal to generate electricity at Waukegan but continues to manage stormwater. Further, Midwest Generation ceased placing CCR in the East Pond when it ceased burning coal. The pond is only used for stormwater and process water unrelated to CCR.”
Waukegan residents testifying at the Chicago hearing noted that they have been demanding a “just transition” including coal ash removal for a decade, with little response from EPA or NRG.
“Publicly available tests conducted independently confirm there is no risk to human health or the environment from the ash ponds or historic ash area,” Schrader said. “Removing the coal ash, however, would pose unnecessary safety and environmental risks to the community, create significant traffic disruptions, and could take far longer than closing in place.”
Advocates say the EPA needs to not only expand the rules to cover all coal ash dumps, but aggressively enforce its rules.
“Rules are awesome, but without enforcement, companies will keep doing what they’ve been doing,” Waukegan resident Eddie Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, told the Energy News Network. “If the EPA doesn’t act, companies will just ignore what the EPA says.”
Kari Lydersen has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post’s Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.
After three years of congested trailheads, crowded restaurants and packed hotels, Montana tourism officials say this summer might be a little calmer as the state’s pandemic-fueled travel boom starts to level out into something closer to normal.
While the state remains a popular tourist destination — especially places like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks — advance hotel reservations are slightly down this year in destinations like the Flathead Valley. Officials attribute that to a number of factors, including rising costs and the end of the COVID-19 emergency, which means people have more travel options than they did just a few summers ago.
“I think it’s because the rest of the world is opening up,” said Julie Mullins, executive director of Explore Whitefish. “The pandemic made people want to be outside, and so places like Whitefish and Glacier National Park saw a huge increase in visitation because of that. But now people feel more comfortable going to cities, and they can travel internationally again.”
Mullins said that in the summer of 2019, Whitefish’s hotel occupancy rate (calculated by dividing the total number of occupied rooms by the total number of rooms available) ranged between 75% and 85%. In 2021, the occupancy rate in June, July and August ranged from 80% to 85%. In 2022, it dropped slightly to pre-pandemic levels of 70% to 80%. Mullins said that trend will likely continue this year.
Short-term rental reservations, like Airbnb and Vrbo, are also down slightly, Mullins said. Since the pandemic, the number of homes available for short-term rentals in the 59937 zip code (Whitefish and the immediate surrounding area) has skyrocketed, from 2,100 in 2019 to 3,300 in 2022.
“It’s still going to be a great summer, but I think it will be flat,” she said.
Daryl Schliem, CEO of the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce, said a similar story is developing in Gallatin County. As in the Flathead, Bozeman area hotel occupancy rates spiked in 2021 and 2022 when outdoor recreation remained a major draw for tourism and Montana was high on people’s list of destinations.
Data from Bozeman’s airport reflected that as well. Right before the pandemic, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport saw nearly 800,000 passengers annually. That dropped to below 500,000 once the pandemic hit, but quickly rebounded in 2021 and 2022, hitting well over 1 million boardings. This year, the growth is expected to continue but not at the same rate, with an estimated 1.2 million enplanements for 2023, according to data from the airport.
Schliem said he expects tourism to continue to grow in the state by 4% or 5% annually. That’s not the type of growth that was seen over the last few years, but is on par with what the state experienced before 2020.
In 2022, 12.5 million nonresidents came to the state, spending more than $5.8 billion, according to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. Tourism supports 43,900 jobs in the state, and 1 in 13 Montana workers are supported by out-of-state travelers.
The national parks were a big driver of visitation in recent years, with Glacier hitting more than 3 million visitors in 2021 and 2.9 million in 2022. Yellowstone hit 4.8 million in 2021 and 3.2 million in 2022 (despite parts of the park being closed due to flooding).
While American travelers begin to look elsewhere for their vacations, Schliem said he thinks the number of international travelers to Montana will start to increase as travel restrictions are eliminated.
“I don’t think we’ll see a full recovery of international travel this year, but I think it will make up for the Americans who are going elsewhere,” he said.
One part of the state that isn’t expecting a ton of change is Missoula. Barbara Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Garden City didn’t see the same spike that places like Bozeman and the Flathead saw over the last few years. Neilan said that’s probably because Missoula isn’t as well tied to iconic outdoor recreation destinations such as Glacier and Yellowstone. In 2018 and 2019, Missoula’s annual average hotel occupancy was at 64%. But in 2022, it was at 61%. During the summer months, that occupancy rate can be between 84% and 88% and Neilan expects similar numbers this year.
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in Massachusetts in 2016, but it was two years before the first retail shop opened in 2018. That year the state saw a modest $5.6 million in sales.
Now, the $4 billion industry, built largely on the backs of small, local retailers, is facing growing pains. As wholesale cannabis prices drop in Massachusetts, adult-use retailers face an alarmingly rapid decrease in profitability.
How Much Has the Cost of Marijuana in Massachusetts Dropped?
Prices in Massachusetts remain stable between late 2018 and early 2021, with the average monthly retail price consistently exceeding 14 dollars per gram, according to the state’s cannabis Control Commission.
Prices underwent a slow but steady decline throughout most of 2021 before dropping dramatically throughout 2022. According to the commission the average retail price of recreational Cannabis hit an all-time low this January at $7.12 per gram
In comparison the commission reports the average retail price in January 2021 was $14.20 per gram.
This means prices for recreation cannabis in Massachusetts have fallen by about 50% over a two-year period.
What Cape Cod Dispensary Closed Down?
The Outer Cape has already seen one of its adult use dispensaries closed for good in 2023, when