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Ecology

How Coal Country Is Cleaning Up Its Act

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By Mason Adams
Yes! Magazine

A program in eastern Kentucky is retraining miners in industries that help mitigate the environmental impacts of mining on communities.

Creative Commons: Greg Goebel, 2012

Creative Commons: Greg Goebel

Like many men raised in eastern Kentucky, Frank Morris spent a chunk of his working life in the coal industry.

Raised in the city of Hazard, Morris did a little bit of everything, from shoveling belt to diesel mechanics.

“Back then, if you were going to pick to live around here and make good money, you either went into the coal business or you went into the medical field,” Morris said.

Like many others, however, Morris was laid off several years ago when the coal industry started contracting. Metallurgical coal, used for making steel, was waning as part of a regular global cycle, and steam coal, used to produce electricity, suffered a long-term decline as power utilities increasingly moved toward cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable wind and solar energy.

Morris found a job at Walmart, but given the cost of child care, he realized he was actually losing money by working there. He tried being a stay-at-home dad, but he found himself yearning to contribute to his family’s financial well-being in a more tangible way, so he started taking small carpentry jobs. Morris had been doing that for a while when he heard about an internship for former coal miners.

The six-month internship with Mountain Association for Community Economic Development offered training in new energy efficiency professions, placement with a local employer, and the potential for longer-term employment after the job ended. Morris applied for the internship and was accepted, along with another ex-miner named Randall Howard. The two received hands-on training in conducting energy audits—learning how to use equipment such as infrared cameras, duct blasters, blower doors, and much more—and went to work at their respective jobs, Morris for the nonprofit Housing Development Alliance and Howard for Christian Outreach with Appalachian People, an affordable housing organization.

Today “things are a lot better for us,” Morris said. “We’re in a better position financially and with our home lives. I’m able to be home every day, most days, before 5 o’clock. That’s something I’ve never had before in my life.”

The money isn’t quite what he made working coal, but it’s a lot better than what he earned at Walmart. He’s also found a better work-life balance than either of those two previous jobs offered.

MACED’s energy efficiency internship program is just one of many initiatives designed to retrain workers laid off during the cratering of the coal industry over the last decade. The coal industry has steadily declined since the 1950s, largely because of mechanization. With the advent of hydraulic fracturing technology in the 2000s leading to an abundance of natural gas, as well as federal regulations that resulted in the closure of older coal-fired power plants, the industry has collapsed in the last decade. Many companies went into bankruptcy or shuttered, resulting in mass layoffs and a ripple effect that’s spread to related businesses, such as railroads and equipment manufacturers.

According to a report produced by Kentucky state officials and reported in the Lexington Herald Leader, the number of coal jobs in 2013 had declined to 12,550—the lowest since the state started recording the figure in 1927. By August 2018, coal jobs had dropped even further to 6,238, according to the Kentucky Office of Energy Policy, which produces quarterly reports on the coal industry.

As a result, many coalfield communities have suffered economic distress and depopulation. Local and state officials have tried a number of approaches to reverse that trend, retraining miners for jobs in industries on the rise, such as computer coding and outdoor recreation.

MACED’s program, funded by a $2 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, $100,000 from Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc., and a $1 million match from MACED’s venture capital loan fund, is designed to build on related skills used in mining that can be adapted for energy efficiency, a growing sector. According to a study by E4TheFuture and Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), nearly 2.25 million Americans work in energy efficiency, including 24,579 people in Kentucky. That figure includes those who work with efficient appliances and lighting, heating and ventilation systems, building materials and insulation, energy audits, building certifications, and more. MACED saw the internship program as an opportunity to add to a growing field while also building local expertise.

“We thought, let’s see if we can develop some local champions who have technical skills,” said Chris Woolery, a program coordinator at MACED. “They can be advocates, they can be independent third-party experts, and they can connect folks to financing through various mechanisms. When I come to Hazard and talk about the gospel of energy efficiency, I’m not received the same way Frank Morris is when he speaks to his community. When Frank became the resident efficiency person at HDA [Housing Development Alliance], we immediately we saw the ripple effects.”

As the first two interns, Howard and Morris were both placed at affiliate organizations of the Appalachia Heat Squad, a collaborative program aimed at expanding access to energy efficient home improvements. They learned how to evaluate a home’s energy efficiency, how to identify and implement improvements, and how to educate homeowners about programs that could help them fund those investments. During their internships, Morris conducted 23 audits and 13 retrofits, while Howard did 22 audits and 5 retrofits.

“Energy efficiency is something that is especially needed in the coal regions,” Morris said. “Around here, electricity has always been cheap. Now we’re getting all these rate increases. That touches everybody—not just doctors and lawyers but grandmothers on fixed incomes, people who have to make a decision: ‘If I don’t pay my electrical bill they’ll cut my power off, but if I do, I might have to miss a few meals this month. Or do I really need my blood pressure medicine this month?’ It’s a hard decision.”

Instead of providing financial aid to pay those electric bills, the Heat Squad aims to fix the issue that’s causing the bills to be high, Morris said.

“Especially around here, housing stock is especially old,” Morris said. “And people living in mobile homes and double-wides can really benefit from this program.”

These energy efficiency programs carry additional possibilities for improving people’s lives. A five-year study of respiratory health in Letcher and Harlan counties found that people who lived in either a mobile home or public housing were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with asthma than people who lived in single-family housing.

The study, known as the Mountain Air Project, now in its second phase, involves prevention. Study participants who have been diagnosed with asthma and had symptoms within the past year meet four times with a trained nurse, and on the third visit, they receive a home assessment. In Harlan County, that’s conducted by Howard, one of the former MACED interns.

“He looks for sources of allergens and irritants in the home,” said Beverly May, a 28-year nurse pursuing a doctor of public health degree at the University of Kentucky, and who manages the Mountain Air Project.

She said Howard is “really brilliant in finding things that can cause trouble. He’s looking for leaks under the sink, pests that are hidden away in dark places you wouldn’t think to look, sources of mold around the outside of the house, water in the basement. Then he talks with the homeowner about what they can do to correct the situation.”

There’s often overlap between healthy homes and those that are energy efficient.

“If a home has cracks and crevices, the door isn’t properly sealed, the windows aren’t properly sealed, then not only does cold air come in during the winter, but there’s also the possibility for pests to come in,” May said. “If you can fix one problem, you might be fixing several problems.”

There are two main challenges. One is that people often feel uncomfortable letting strangers examine their homes, even for a beneficial reason. The other is that the repairs needed to fix problems sometimes outstrip the finances of homeowners. In both cases, Howard is well-positioned to help.

As a local, Howard can talk to homeowners to reassure them.

“I’ll try to connect with them in any way possible to try to ease their mind about letting me go through their home,” Howard said. “I try to show them I’m more of a friend than an enemy, that I’m there to help them. I live in the mountains myself. I guess they connect with me pretty good because I have lived in the past in some of the conditions that they live in. I’m open with them. I tell them I ain’t here to judge you because you’ve got clothes piled up in the corner or dirty dishes in the sink. That’s no concern to me unless there’s mold growing on it. I talk to them a little bit to show them I ain’t there to judge them.”

As for the financial piece, the mission of Howard’s employer, Christian Outreach with Appalachian People, is to build affordable rural housing and offer programs that can offset costs.

The results can make a big difference in a homeowner’s life. Howard describes one such rehabilitation project: “We went in, it didn’t have no insulation under the floor, and the roof was leaking. We put a new roof on, insulation under the floor, a new heat pump. I had to go back later to test everything out. I walked in and there’s an 80-year-old man. He stood up, walked over to me, and gave me a hug. He said, ‘We’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never been as comfortable as we are now. You’ve made this house better, so much more comfortable.’”

The homeowner’s electric bill was cut in half, Howard said.

MACED has now hired two more interns in Hazard for its second round of the program. Their focus is on commercial and industrial instead of residential projects. Because of economies of scale, Woolery said, businesses are often quicker to invest in energy efficiency projects than individual families, and there’s more immediate work available. MACED is hiring for three more internships as well: one doing commercial energy efficiency work in Paintsville, a second more focused on the marketing of energy efficiency and renewable energy in Berea, and a third trained for solar photovoltaic cell installation in Lexington.

Woolery hopes to push some of those interns toward the solar power, where there’s potentially even more opportunity.

“We’re just showing that there’s a ton of different ways we could diversify this economy,” Woolery said. “Knowing we don’t have access to any silver bullets, all we can do is shoot as many silver BBs as we can.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation – and is shared under a Creative Commons License by Yes! Magazine.

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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