Mountaintop removal mining is still in the courts, and the hemlock woolly adelgid is moving faster than thought; elsewhere, wind farms, a new conservation easement and air pollution legislation are coming into being.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February overturned a lower court’s decision that the Corps of Engineers must better review environmental impacts before issuing permits for mountaintop removal coal mining operations. In a two-to-one ruling that could affect mountaintop mining throughout Appalachia, the court said federal Judge Robert C. Chambers wrongly did not defer to the Corps’ technical expertise when it permitted stream fills at four West Virginia mines. The Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment estimated the ruling could open the way for permits to move forward that would fill 79 and 134 stream miles in Kentucky and West Virginia, respectively. Opponents vowed to continue the legal fight to stop mountaintop removal. appalachian-center.org
U.S. Forest Service researchers say the hemlock woolly adelgid is killing Eastern hemlocks in the Southern Appalachians faster than previously thought. The tiny bugs, invasives from Asia, attach to hemlock needles and deplete the trees of food. Researchers at the agency’s 5,600-acre Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in North Carolina found that, once infected, hemlocks can die off within just three years. The evergreens provide critical ecosystem functions, including wildlife habitat and shade to cool mountain streams; a rapid loss of the species could disrupt how carbon cycles through the forests and atmosphere, complicating climate change impacts, according to research published in February. srs.fs.usda.gov/coweeta
Residents of Garrett County had two bits of good news in late winter. The Maryland Environment Trust, Allegheny Highlands Conservancy and others worked with a local family to transfer a permanent conservation easement on the 745-acre Bear Creek Ranch. The property protects the headwaters of Bear Creek and is high quality habitat for many rare species including the Tiger spiketail dragonfly. Also, managers at New Germany and Deep Creek Lake state parks have instituted a raft of energy-saving and environmentally friendly measures in cabins and facilities, including using compact fluorescent bulbs and insulating windows and doors. The parks are also conserving fuel by letting native plants grow in certain areas rather than mowing. green.maryland.gov
In January, a federal judge ruled in favor of the state of North Carolina in its 2006 lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority in which the state said air pollution from TVA’s coal-fired power plants was a public nuisance that sickened its citizens, caused deaths, and damaged the scenery and environment in the Great Smoky Mountains. TVA estimated it would cost $1.8 billion to comply with the judge’s ruling that it cut more air pollution more quickly than federal law requires from the four targeted plants – Kingston, John Sevier and Bull Run plants in Tennessee and Widows Creek in northern Alabama. ncdoj.gov
Cleanup of the 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash that spilled from the Kingston power plant in December – oozing into nearby streams and covering 300 acres under as much as nine feet of muck – could cost up to $825 million, the Tennessee Valley Authority said. That’s in addition to the $31 million already spent by the end of January, but not including the untold costs of several class-action lawsuits and potential environmental fines. TVA Chairman Bill Sansom said in January that ratepayers would likely bear the costs. On Capitol Hill, a congressional panel is considering legislation introduced in the wake of the Kingston disaster to require design and engineering standards for all coal-ash ponds. tva.gov
Twenty-two localities in western Virginia get at least some of their drinking water from waters that flow from the one-million-acre-plus George Washington National Forest, yet the forest service makes no special provision to keep it clean, concludes a report from the Charlottesville-based Wild Virginia. In fact, the state has designated water quality in 50 streams and six reservoirs in the forest as “impaired.” Wild Virginia submitted its report, “The State of Our Water,” and recommendations to the forest service, which is updating the long-range management plan for the forest. The agency will take public comment on its draft plan, expected in spring.
Two energy giants – Dominion Power and BP – announced plans in January to pursue development of two wind farms in the mountains of southwest Virginia. The companies said they purchased 2,560 acres in Tazewell County, and have begun preliminary studies for a 70 to 80 megawatt operation on East River Mountain. Jim Madden of BP told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in February the project would create 150 construction jobs and roughly $600,000 in revenue initially, and that some of the electricity would be used locally. Tazewell County has begun reviewing a ridgeline protection ordinance that could impact the project. Dominion and BP have not revealed details for a second potential wind farm in the area, in Wise County. dom.com
Blue Ridge Endangered Places
The nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center released its first annual “Top 10” list of the South’s most endangered places, including four in the Blue Ridge region:
• Globe “old-growth” forest, N.C. (forest service logging)
• Cherokee National Forest, Tenn. (forest service logging)
• Clinch and Powell rivers, Va. and Tenn. (pollution and destruction from mountaintop removal coal mining)
• Shenandoah Valley, Va. (potential widening of I-81)