Environmental Justice Considerations
DMME's recommendations for providing support to Virginia's coalfield region should fully take into account environmental justice considerations. DMME should also provide clear and detailed recommendations to ensure that funded projects in Virginia's coalfield region adhere to state and federal environmental regulations, including the establishment of meaningful accountability mechanisms to verify that funded projects abide by applicable regulations and experience consequences when such regulations are violated. Some previously-funded projects through VCEDA, for example, have resulted in serious and ongoing environmental degradation as a result of projects not adhering to existing regulations, resulting in enforcement agencies expending excessive amounts of time and public resources to inspect locations of concern, train project managers on applicable regulations, and address/remediate existing impacts. These issues have also impacted (and continue to impact) residents of low-income communities throughout the coalfields in negative ways, with little accountability for damage caused by these projects to date. These issues not only increase environmental harm to public resources but also increase costs to coalfield residents and communities through the funding and resources required to mitigate what are largely preventable impacts.
Adjustments to existing funding structures need to account for these serious deficiencies in accountability for recipients of funding and develop a rigorous framework to ensure the environmental sustainability of funded projects, as well as to verify adherence to existing environmental regulations during the planning and implementation phase of projects and outline clear and meaningful consequences for projects when such regulations are ignored or violated using public funding.
shared solar community energy programs
Submitted by Ellen and Don Elmes
7902 Pea Patch Road
Jewell Ridge, VA 24622
Here is a written summary of our comments given at the Reenergize SW Virginia Listening Session at Richlands High School on July 6, 2021:
We are speaking here tonight as homeowners and public utility customers in Southwest Virginia. We’ve lived on a mountaintop in Jewell Ridge on the Buchanan County side of the road for almost 50 years. We have long been interested in providing at least some of our electrical power needs by use of solar panels for solar power generation. When, during the past year, we finally looked into installing solar panels on the rooftop of our house, we realized by looking at an aerial view of our property on Google Maps how totally and tightly our house is surrounded by thick forest foliage – a fact that prohibits our use of solar panels, (unless we cleared hundreds of trees from surrounding land!), as the panels would receive only short hours of sunlight daily.
But we’ve been heartened to learn recently about the possibilities for solar energy development offered to communities around the nation by “shared solar,” (also called “community solar”), projects. This is a way that interested citizens can subscribe, through the payment of their monthly energy bills, to a shared community solar energy system offered by the local power company. Through this system, customers receive energy credits from specific panels on their monthly electricity bill, reducing the cost of their energy consumption. Local citizen stakeholders then have the chance to work together to boost solar industries in their area – providing more jobs, industrial growth, and solar access to everyone, including schools, low-income residents who live in apartments or multi-family housing, or people like us who have too many trees!
The problem in Southwest Virginia, however, is that shared solar programs are not available. Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy utilities have been “allowed” by the Virginia General Assembly for four years now to offer community solar pilot projects, but neither utility has made such a program option available to customers and no projects have been built. We are asking for two things:
- That the Virginia Legislature require that public utility companies offer the shared solar option to citizens in localities that desire access to solar, and thereby build solar projects in those communities; and,
- That the Commonwealth provide economic transition-to-solar support for our region, which would support one of the Virginia Department of Energy’s stated primary goals for addressing climate change and energy diversification.
We all know now that global warming is already causing disastrous weather patterns, glacial melting, and temperature extremes affecting agriculture, land and water use, and the rise of sea levels. We older adults will not live to see the most extreme results of these cataclysmic changes, but if we don’t act as citizens, communities, state legislators, and Congressional leaders, our children and grandchildren are looking towards life-threatened futures on planet Earth.
We make this appeal for action on all levels of citizenry, and hope to be able to play our part in transitioning to cleaner and safer energy with the help of legislated change in Virginia and our Nation.
Ellen and Don Elmes
Reenergize Southwest Virginia Comments
My name is Austin Counts and I work with Appalachian Voices in Norton. I was in the last graduating class of Ervinton High School in Nora, and have been a lifelong resident of Southwest Virginia. I am also one of the many individuals looking to stay in the area. However, we cannot do that without the support for a fair and just transition in the region. We must have a way for our people and youth to make a living here while protecting our abundant resources for a diversified economy in Southwest Virginia.
By supporting renewable energy opportunities, like solar power, we can extend the potential for jobs in the region. So far this year, the Solar Energy Industries Association reported over 4,300 solar energy jobs in Virginia. However, with the clean economy act, we could see up to 29,000 solar jobs in the future. How many of those could be in Southwest Virginia if we had the right support? Solar Energy would invite new companies to the region and save our communities money to put towards food, infrastructure, education, and our many other community needs.
We also have to think about where all this new infrastructure for our transitioning economy can go. Through the region, we face issues with abandoned mine lands that present hazards to our communities, businesses, and economic opportunities. Finding a way to address these dangerous, polluting, and unproductive lands will be a vital part of our transition. Cleaning up abandoned mine lands will create immediate jobs for community members and new opportunities for land re-use in upcoming or existing industries. Figuring out how to fund the clean-up of these mine lands and re-use them will be critical to our community’s progress.
Beyond AML, the accessibility our communities have to their own nearby lands is severely limited. The excessive amounts of land owned by often out-of-state landholders has been an identified problem since the groundbreaking report Who Owns Appalachia, released in 1983. We are still trying to get the state to begin addressing this issue and get land back into community hands. This problem has reduced the amount of land available for economic development and recreation and shortchanged our communities of tax revenue for far too long.
Even though I can’t go into them in-depth myself, I don’t want to leave out all the other things we need to have viable communities. Things like increased healthcare opportunities, especially around those affected by the mining industry, black lung, and the opioid epidemic; support for our education systems; support for our basic family needs, like childcare and transportation; and the protection of our rarest economic resources, clean water, abundant forests, and diverse ecosystems.
I would like to end by saying that this cannot be the last time the Commonwealth reaches out to Southwest Virginia to see how our transition should or is taking place. We need to be a part of these decisions to make sure the support provided is really what our communities need and that can’t be done in just a few meetings. Without real community engagement, an equitable transition for our coal impacted communities cannot happen properly. Thank you again for your time here today and I look forward to hearing from you all again in the future.
Re Energize Southwest Virginia
These comments are restricted to Wise County. My name is Kathy Selvage and I have lived in Wise County almost my entire life. Approximately 35% or more of the county’s land mass has been permitted for surface mining. EVERY TIME ANOTHER PERMIT WAS APPROVED by DMLR/DMME, IT DESTROYED YET ANOTHER FUTURE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITY by isolating permits with total disregard for the cumulative effects of our severely marred environment in both surface and water. Please visit this link and maneuver around this location for a look at just one site that I speak of. There are many. https://earth.google.com/web/search/37.01580000000,-82.77200000000
YOU CANNOT HAVE AN ECONOMY WITHOUT PLACE.
Any assistance should NOT be focused on programs or procedures that are anti-worker, riddled with corporate tax breaks, or enterprise zones.
There is a dire need for basic foundational facts that should be shared broadly with all citizens to greatly inform public participation in the future. The first several in the list is retrievable in agency offices, I believe, if the Commonwealth could assist in assimilating and delivering this information to the public through multiple mediums.
- DMME color coded mapping of all mined lands (pre ’77 and post ’77) within the county’s boundaries and determine extent of reclamation that is still undone (layered in mapping) – to promote following the progression of that reclamation and how it is financed.
- Determine the largest landowners and accumulate tax data (acreage, tax rate, etc.) on property – for perhaps the last five years (County Commissioner).
- Determine if any public monies are being spent on private lands and how much.
- Determine an estimated increased percentage for construction costs on strip-mined lands. Land conditions could be cost prohibitive for utilization, depending on proposed use.
- Determine where water and sewer lines are within the County (WCPSA). Sewer lines would be minimal outside of corporate limits, I believe.
- Review of empty houses and buildings to determine structural soundness and possible repurposing. Stop the succession line of purchasing through the gain of insider information that drives up housing or office costs when some learn prematurely of future development.
- Home ownership rates proportional to the total and home / trailer data to determine appropriate housing needs. Without a doubt, some should be modest, appropriate to household income level, which are for the most part small.
- Medical doctors are short term. Consider identifying locals who are competent and interested, and NEED help with medical education costs, in turn for a long-term contracted stint here. Try to plant them in communities for diversity and crossing of socio-economic lines, of which there is little.
- Determine and map broadband coverage, determine the level of necessity for quality-of-life issues, and seek mentors for young entrepreneurs. Encourage local business owners who are retiring to mentor their employees and give them a portion of the business as they retire. Businesses have vanished partly because the owners retire, die, and the building and business falls down and melts into the ground.
- Encourage at least one conversation between the youth of the area only and the Sec. of Commerce. They are the future and their views should be sought and incorporated as much as possible, as we are an aging and declining population, and have experienced yet another exodus.
Current employment that could be encouraged and or engaged
- Embrace green energy in all avenues – homes, schools, institutions.
- Restorative work on previously mined/and or abandoned lands with caveat of deep concern for public works and money continuously expensed on privately held lands, especially for large land owners who pay extremely low real estate taxes in the County, thus defunding the County.
- Installation of broadband and plan for maintenance.
- Utilize teams of local contractors (electricians, plumbers, structural, and building) to review empty houses and buildings, and make determination If these homes/buildings are unsalvageable, develop a plan for destruction to reduce blighted landscapes, at owner’s expense, not taxpayers’ expense.
- Determine mined lands where debris, rusted machinery, old tires, abandoned tipples and tracks have been left and offer employment to miners to clear and scrap the metal, at the owner’s expense.
- Look at transportation needs realistically—consider whether rails could be used for transportation of goods—perhaps even people. List of places that could be used for small manufacturing related to outward transportation of product.
I would never encourage public private partnerships. There could be increased public costs to cover the cost of their risk (they say) and there cannot be sufficient accountability as they like to say it’s proprietary. Just one reason. In our case, public funds will go to the same businesses who did the damage to now repair the land, and the masses of land lie in the hands of the few. It’s an economic loop of corporate welfare.
A new green economy will go much further in developing a future for SW VA than the usual public-private partnerships. LET’S GO GREEN and LEAN and build a much-needed broad foundation on which a future of economic diversity can emerge and materialize. Invest funds into projects with measurable, long term results. Stop us from spinning our economic wheels.
Low Income solar and economic access
My comments are pretty straightforward, I am a 37-year-old quadriplegic disability recipient who works part-time within my capabilities. I have been in a wheelchair for 23 years and have spent most of that completely dependent on the social safety net for my medical needs, independent living, housing, transportation, and at times to provide for food.
I fall within a lot of cracks, I am systemically required to maintain poverty in order to receive personal care assistance, if my income goes above $22,000 per year every dime of it gets taken as a “co-pay” for my personal care that on any given week could be 56-80 hours of care need. There is a giant gap between my current income and what would be needed for independence. Because of that gap I cannot substantially increase my income to the point that I pay any significant personal income taxes, federal or state. Therefore, I don’t qualify for solar subsidies and if I get solar panels (which I’m in the process of attempting to right now) I have to pay full price while people that have higher incomes than I and a much greater ability to afford solar get 26% off through federal subsidies that exclude low income people. It is a poverty penalty much like uninsured medical expenses.
My request is for the state to apportion economic development funds in a way that accounts for the needs of low income individuals and spreads the benefits of these funds to them directly. I would like to see the state of Virginia create a low income solar subsidy that can help fill that gap for people like myself who would like to be energy independent. This would directly benefit Southwest Virginia as a large portion of our population lives in poverty, it will directly support Virginia’s stated intent for shifting to renewable energy, and it will, in the long term, assist low income individuals to reduce their environmental impact while also reducing their out-of-pocket daily living costs.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has an opportunity right now to meet its climate and economic development goals while also reducing or eliminating the poverty penalty of federal solar subsidies. I urge you to take this opportunity and help Southwest Virginia community members as we try to end our cycles of poverty. Thank you
Southwest VA’s Economic Transition
I have only lived in Southwest Virginia since May 2019. In that time, I have come to love this place and its people. I have also been heartbroken by the amount of poverty, lack of infrastructure, broadband access and economic opportunities for this region. It feels like we are the forgotten area of the state. I have heard concerns from parents about their children leaving the region upon graduation from high school or college due to the lack of professional opportunities. I have volunteered at local non-profits and witnessed the long lines of people who are in need of food and personal supplies due to lack of employment opportunities. I have held conversations with my sisters in my sorority for education professionals as they have talked about youth who desire to draw a check for their living, as they are products of generational poverty.
Having moved here from the Chattanooga, TN area, it is hard to understand how a region has for so long relied on only one major source of economic development. It is hard to watch how challenging it has been for people to realize the coal is on the decline, and that it will not be returning to that level. Assistance in helping our community leaders find new sources of economic growth and development is vital. Holding mine owners accountable for providing economic support to help the communities reclaim and repurpose the mines that they have raped and left abandoned is an essential part of the process that is needed. It is also critical that mine owners are held accountable for continuing to provide health care to former miners who suffered health issues as a result of working in the mines.
Working with local officials to help them develop policies and strategies that will help this region attract and retain new clean industries is another important step. Given the remote location, it is so important resources be provided to enhance the infrastructure and help address the housing needs of our communities. There are quality educational institutions that can provide education and training that new industries will require. It is time to show this region that we are not the forgotten part of the state. Thank you for the opportunity to express my thoughts.
The New Economy Network on Investments to Reenergize Southwest Virginia
Southwest Virginia's New Economy Network (NEN) is a regional group of organizations and citizens that focuses on sustainable economic development and transition in the coal impacted counties of Southwest Virginia. We serve as an open forum for groups and individuals engaged in economic development, diversification, and transition work. NEN has representation from all seven coalfield counties.
The NEN works under four common principles:
Sustainable economic development is necessarily intertwined with sound environmental stewardship.
Issues of economic and environmental justice should always be considered and valued when making decisions about the future of our region.
We are stronger through collaboration.
Everyone's voice is essential and will be given equal consideration in discussions and decision-making.
NEN has collectively identified the following subjects as crucial pieces of a sustainable economic transition in Southwest Virginia in light of the elimination of the Virginia coal tax credits.
Equitable Land Ownership
The existing land ownership structures in Southwest Virginia are inequitable and have hindered local tax revenues, kept landholding corporations anonymous to communities, and restricted economic development opportunities in the region. To address this issue, Southwest Virginia needs support to change the tax structure on large absentee landholders so localities can raise tax revenues, incentivize development and use of the land, and encourage the sale of land back to our community. Counties need funding to provide public access to accessible and up-to-date virtual land ownership records that include landowner, acreage, and assessed value. We must also ensure fair and economically viable land access opportunities for local agriculture and other land uses by incentivizing multi-year leasing on undeveloped property.
Education and Workforce Support
In order to provide a viable economy, Southwest Virginia must see investment in our educational institutions, job training, and worker support structures which increase the available workforce. We need increased educational funding focused on training – and retraining— for advanced manufacturing, eco-tourism, trades, and other emerging job opportunities. We must increase access to basic life and family necessities such as affordable housing and childcare.
Cooperative and Small Business Support
In order to diversify and increase the resilience of Southwest Virginia's economy, the region needs increased support of small businesses and entrepreneurs. Information on new business models such as worker-owned and customer-owned cooperative businesses need to be made available by our local business support systems. Cooperative enterprises are more resilient during economic hardships and circulate more wealth locally. By building and diversifying statewide support of these business models, we are building resilience in our community.
Recreation and Tourism
Tourism has been identified as a significant piece of the economic future in Southwest Virginia. The Commonwealth must continue to enhance our eco and cultural tourism economies by investing in regional marketing efforts, training for key staff, and infrastructure. This must be done in a way that ensures the development of recreation infrastructure is conducted in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way.
Mine Land Reclamation
Abandoned mine lands, lands mined before 1977, across Southwest Virginia hinder economic development opportunities, negatively impact our environment, and endanger our communities. The Commonwealth must invest in restoring mined lands and brownfields across the region while improving our environment, creating jobs, and increasing economic opportunities in the most coal impacted communities of Virginia.
In order to transition from the coal economy, Southwest Virginia must have equal access to new energy development opportunities such as solar energy. Incentivizing and supporting local alternative energy businesses, manufacturing, and development is imperative. Development should be done in a way that maximizes the use of coal impacted lands, such as abandoned mine lands and brownfields, while preserving farmland. Access to cost-effective renewable energy should be incentivized for low-to-moderate-income communities. Shared solar programs should also be made available through our local utilities to increase accessibility to all community members.
In order to grow our workforce and provide adequate healthcare and recovery options, the Commonwealth must support individuals experiencing substance abuse and mental health needs. We need to provide better support for individuals recovering from drug abuse, ensuring a system to transition them back into the workforce and creating positive relationships with their communities.
NEN recognizes that this is not an exhaustive list of the needs of Southwest Virginia. As such, we believe that these conversations must be ongoing. Future listening sessions should be held in a more accessible and strategic manner that puts public engagement first. These efforts must be coordinated with the appropriate organizations as designated by the Commonwealth, including the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, to ensure these critical opportunities for impacted communities are held in a just, lawful, and equitable manner. Engagement with Southwest Virginia communities cannot end here if we are to have a successful economic transition. Furthermore, allocation of and decisions about funding should also include the range of organizations in the region that are working to build a revitalized economy. The state should consider alternative funding mechanisms, including the creation of a just transition fund to be managed by existing state agencies.
Re Energize Southwest Virginia -- DMME Capabilities
DMLR/DMME is not exactly the right state agency to ascertain the best economic path forward for the coalfields of far southwest Virginia.
Their experience has been vast as one of governing the extraction/economics of coal and reclamation for decades. Coal has been a mono economy that has not broadly benefited the citizens; instead, it has benefited mineral rights owners, most often located elsewhere. Destruction provided tax revenue for local governments through separation taxes and as you know, the industry has been the recipient of many tax incentives, etc. that did not benefit the public at large.
The southwest Virginia coalfields need some of the best economic minds in the country to aid in the growth of a truly diversified localized economy in order to facilitate economic transition and DMLR/DMME has neither that expertise or experience on its resume, to the best of my knowledge.
TCC Statement to DMME to Reenergize Southwest
The Clinch Coalition was formed in 1998 when local citizens coalesced to reduce a major timber sale proposed near the Bark Camp recreation area in the Clinch Ranger District of the Jefferson National Forest. The Clinch Coalition is composed of local residents who are passionate about preserving our environment.
We thank Governor Northam and leaders in the General Assembly for this opportunity to offer recommendations on how the Commonwealth can provide economic transition support to the coalfield region. The Clinch Coalition supports economic and environmental sustainability for Southwest Virginia.
We are a community-based, environmental organization that believes in the importance of appreciating, understanding, and protecting our land – the mountains high and the valleys low, the streams, creeks and rivers, and the plants and animals that are integral to our lives in one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. We feel that doing so is essential to improving our quality of life and well-being.
Our comments will focus on the six areas identified by the Commonwealth - workforce redevelopment, economic diversification, reclamation of coal-impacted lands and brownfields, community revitalization, infrastructure improvements, and clean energy development. These are not stand-alone issues, they are interwoven and aspects of the total effort needed to Reenergize Southwest Virginia.
Throughout our comments, the underlying recommendation is to trust and support the people and the long-standing educational and economic efforts of many local leaders and organizations. We do not need a top-down approach, we need a partnership and the support of state officials to understand and address the unique problems of the far southwestern region of the Commonwealth. We say again, we appreciate this listening approach led by DMME.
Workforce Redevelopment and Economic Diversification
These of course go hand in hand. As the economy moves from extractive industries, targeted training and retraining of workers are needed. Foremost should be the retraining of coal miners. For example, as solar energy becomes more available, support Mountain Empire Community College and Southwest Virginia Community College in their on-going solar energy training programs. As ecotourism is developed, look not only to the small businesses this generates but also consider the training needs for hospitality training in restaurant, lodging, recreation and associated businesses. Another critical area is the training needs for healthcare workers from all disciplines: nursing, medicine, pharmacists, physical therapy, occupational therapy and respiratory therapy. Most have the potential to begin training at our local community colleges or four-year colleges. The COVID pandemic is having a huge impact in our area and continues to strain our healthcare professions. As our current workers move out of these professions, it will be critical to have appropriately trained individuals to take their place.
The Clinch Coalition supports economic development efforts that are crafted with environmental sustainability in mind and that follow established state and federal regulations to ensure that development efforts minimize unnecessary environmental impacts. We also believe in maximizing transparency and public involvement throughout the planning process to ensure that economic development efforts can proactively identify and minimize risks to the region's sensitive and nationally significant natural resources and underrepresented human populations.
Reclamation of Coal-impacted Lands and Brownfields
A tragic legacy of the coal mining industry is the destruction of our mountains and mined lands being abandoned, leaving the cleanup to the taxpayers. Thus, the funding of reclamation and reforestation on formerly mined lands and other brownfields across Southwest Virginia is an important part of the region’s economic transition and ecological protection effort. The state should work aggressively with our Senators and Representatives to pass the ReClaim Act and the Abandoned Mine Land reauthorization to obtain federal funds to reclaim these ecological hazards and scars on our lands. In turn these efforts provide additional job opportunities. When DMME processes all permits for mining and gas wells they should implement stringent mitigation, monitoring and enforcement protocols because of the far-ranging environmental impacts caused by mining and drilling activities.
Community Revitalization and Infrastructure Improvements
Often what comes to mind when hearing community revitalization is a vibrant downtown. Infrastructure improvements are roads and bridges, water and sewer systems, and broadband. All are important. As of this writing the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure plan will soon be law to provide much needed funding to localities. The Northam administration has already committed to state-wide broadband with funds from the federal Rescue Plan. But revitalization of communities is much more. It is having available and affordable housing, transportation, childcare, healthcare and addressing our opioid epidemic. Infrastructure includes meeting the basic services needed by the population.
Environmental justice is critical to community revitalization. Thirty percent or more of the land in the Coalfield Counties is owned by large, mostly absentee corporations who have held these lands for over a century. The land is scarred from the extractive industries of mining and logging, often nonproductive, unavailable for sustainable agriculture and new infrastructure such as solar farms, and does not provide a fair share of local taxes. The state should support optional taxation categories to address this long-standing injustice.
Clean Energy Development
The world has received a “Code Red” for global climate change from the United Nations. The Clinch Coalition supports the science-based definition of climate change and that the ability to mitigate human influences on climate begins locally. Alternative energy sources and intact forest habitats are needed for the preservation of biological diversity, the reduction of carbon emission and carbon sequestration. The Clinch-Powell river watersheds and High Knob Landform of the Upper Tennessee River basin, along with adjacent Pine Mountain, are important regional and nationally significant biodiversity hotspots that offer the best opportunity for local climate change mitigation. It is important to promote policies that protect standing woodlands on national, state and private lands for carbon storage.
We support the continued and expanded development of a renewable energy industry in the region. Solar energy, with the formation and leadership of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, is making inroads on bringing solar energy to local businesses, educational facilities and residents. The state should support the development of “shared solar.”
Alternative energy development must happen in a way that preserves our natural environment by leaving existing forest lands intact to mitigate carbon emissions. Thus, funding and incentivising this development on local abandoned mine lands, former strip mines, and other mining or brownfield features is imperative to the energy transition in Virginia. Additionally, the state should research additional potential opportunities for renewable energy development in the region such as micro-hydro, wind, and geothermal.
The Clinch Coalition supports sustainable actions in Southwest Virginia that generate social, economic, and environmental benefits that protect, promote and preserve our region for the well-being of present and future generations.