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kingstonThe Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tennessee is shown in this file image from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

TVA denies lobbying or cronyism, cites need for "expertise and analysis"

Editor's Note: This report is a collaboration between Hellbender Press and Hard Knox Wire.

A coalition of environmental groups who joined forces to stop the Tennessee Valley Authority from using ratepayer money to fund trade groups who lobby against the Clean Air Act and other environmental protections filed a federal lawsuit against the utility.

The environmentalists claim the practice potentially raises conflicts of interest and throws into doubt TVA’s willingness to comply with clean air laws even as the utility retires its coal plants in order to transition to a mix of fossil gas and nuclear power.

The 20-page lawsuit was filed Sept. 9 in federal court in Knoxville by a half-dozen groups, including the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The groups aren’t seeking monetary damages other than court costs and legal fees.

TVA has invested millions of dollars in measurable air quality improvements as it prepares to divest from coal as a main electricity source. Nevertheless, TVA paid membership dues to interest groups such as Edison Electric Institute (which is headquartered five blocks from the U.S. Capitol) and Energy and Wildlife Action Coalition, according to the plaintiff’s suit.

"TVA has not been officially served with the lawsuit, so it would be inappropriate to comment on its specifics," TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said early Thursday.

“As the nation’s largest public power provider and a federal agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority needs to demonstrate leadership by halting the financing of groups propping up the fossil fuel economy,” said Howard Crystal, legal director at CBD’s Energy Justice program. “Instead it funds these groups to do its dirty work while it moves forward with building new fossil gas plants. TVA can and must do better.” 

TVA contends it merely wants to get input from multiple stakeholders with multiple perspectives.

"As a federal agency, TVA is prohibited from participating in lobbying activities, and the TVA Board has directed that any dues, membership fees, or financial contributions paid to external organizations not be used for purposes inconsistent with TVA’s statutory mission or legal obligations.   
"Like other major utilities, TVA’s membership in a diverse array of external organizations allows TVA access to specialized expertise and analysis that directly benefits all of our customers at a cost significantly lower than if TVA were to undertake such work alone."

Maggie Shober, director of utility reform at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said TVA has a special responsibility to support environmental protections.

“TVA is unique in the power industry in that environmental stewardship and economic development are codified in the agency’s founding mission,” she said. “It is imperative that the largest public power utility operate with accountability and transparency, stop funding anti-environment and anti-green jobs work, and invest in clean energy that will support the health of the Valley and the people who depend on it.”

Daniel Tait, chief operating officer of plaintiff Energy Alabama, said: “TVA has forced its customers to make political speech by taking money from their utility bills and using it for anti-clean energy advocacy. We have repeatedly called on the TVA inspector general to investigate this misuse of customer funds but after hearing and seeing nothing, we felt compelled to act.”

The path to the lawsuit began when the groups used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that TVA paid $200,000 in 2018 to the Utility Water Act Group, which lobbies against parts of the Clean Water Act. They also learned the utility was paying $500,000 a year to join the Edison Electric Institute, a group that represents all private, investor-owned utility companies in the country.

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Deadly natural disasters have ravaged hardscrabble Knoxville for generations. Covid-19 takes the cake.

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 Hard Knox Wire: A brief history of Ktown's worst natural disasters

The Covid-19 pandemic currently could go down in history as Knoxville's worst hard time (to borrow a phrase from Timothy Egan), but a litany of natural disasters preceded the international outbreak of respiratory disease that killed 629 people in Knox County as of Sept. 8, according to the Knox County Health Department. Only half of the county's residents have been vaccinated, according to a New York Times database, and more than 10 percent of the population has been infected with Covid-19, which can carry life-long health implications.

Hard Knox Wire has a great rundown of the Covid crisis and other natural disasters that the city and region have faced in its ongoing Knoxville history series. They include the far-flung effects of the New Madrid earthquake; periodic flooding that devastated downtown and outlying areas before TVA dammed the Tennessee River; a Cocke County plane crash that killed all aboard, including noteworthy Knoxvillians; and, perhaps, appropo, the smallpox and cholera breakouts that struck the city in the 1800s.

History is a great teacher, and thanks to JJ Stambaugh of Hard Knox Wire and Jack Neely of the Knoxville History Project for keeping us on our toes in regard to the past. 

 

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1600px Red Trillium 27527A red trillium is seen in the Southern Appalachians. It is often the target of poachers who aspire to place it in an ill-suited domestic ornamental garden. Courtesy Wiki Commons

Forest service withholds ginseng permits to protect native Southern Appalachian plants as overall poaching persists

Paul Super has a message for people who take plants and animals from Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

It's stealing.

“We’re trying to protect the park as a complete ecosystem and as a place that people can enjoy the wildlife and everything that lives here … but they have to do it in a sustainable way, and poaching doesn’t fit,” said Super, the park's resource coordinator.

“Be a good citizen. Enjoy the park without damaging it.”

Super said the novel coronavirus pandemic led to the second-highest visitation to the park in 2020, just over 12 million, even with the park being closed briefly.

“This year will likely have the highest visitation ever,” he said, adding that the park is, in terms of the pandemic, a “relatively safe place for family and friends.”

Super said this higher visitation rate may lead to more poaching but it may also lead to more people who “appreciate something that a poacher would take away from them.

“Besides being illegal, that’s just selfish and rude,” Super said regarding plants and animals, and even cultural artifacts that are taken from the park.

Super is the park's research coordinator, and is in charge of recruiting researchers to help better understand the nuances and full ramifications of stealing public natural resources. He said his researchers don’t enforce the laws, but they do alert law enforcement rangers to poaching incidents and suspicions. 

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Dozens of oil spills tracked in Gulf of Mexico nearly two weeks after Hurricane Ida

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Washington Post: Thousands of reports spill in about pollution following Hurricane Ida

It was a perfect storm of imperfect planning that led to southern Louisiana's prominent role as both a producer and transporter of fossil fuels -- and its vulnerability to storms such as Hurricane Ida.

Ida pitched one of the highest hurricane gusts (175 mph) ever recorded in the U.S. when it came ashore at Port Fouchon. Its storm surge also inundated and destroyed both residential neighborhoods and refineries, pumps, pipelines and petroleum storage facilities associated with the high-dollar, polluting petrochemical complex of southern Louisiana.

The Coast Guard is tracking 350 documented oil spills that have occurred since Ida's violent arrival on Aug. 29. Overall, the Washington Post reported "the Coast Guard has received 2,113 reports of pollution or contamination in the waterways to date, with plans to follow up on each.

"The most significant incident so far has been the oil spill off Port Fourchon, in a lease area known as Bay Marchand Block 5," the Post reported.

The Gulf Coast and gulf itself are littered with thousands of miles of abandoned pipelines and imperfectly capped wellheads. Ida ruptured many, but this is a common headline every time a hurricane strikes the Gulf Coast. It just seems to be getting worse.

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Black Crappie in the Tennessee AquariumA black crappie is seen in the Tennessee Aquarium. Citizen scientists across the region can now plug their fish findings into a new database. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

So you want to be a citizen scientist? There’s a new app for that!

The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute wants to assess the status of various fish populations throughout the Southeast so it released a new app to help outdoor folks and anglers identify the fish they spot, report the sighting, and enter their discoveries into a regional fish database.

The Freshwater Information Network (FIN) accepts and includes data for three major watersheds: The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and Mobile Bay.

Tennesseans may be familiar with the two rivers, but may think of Mobile Bay as a distant place with no connection to them, but its headwaters touch Tennessee in the Conasauga River. With its geographic isolation, the Conasauga is home to species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

Our region has more species of fish than any other part of the country, and the open FIN database and application includes information on nearly half the U.S. species of fish. When hikers, boaters or anglers spot a fish, they can participate by first photographing it and then uploading the photograph to the app.

The app can help citizens themselves identify the fish, and when paired with GPS location data it becomes a part of the FIN database, which also includes museum records and interactive maps. The app also allows a user to enter their address to find their watershed and access a list of the fish that live there.

FIN Watershed Map

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Park service seeks public input on regulation of Smokies helicopter flights

A public input session has begun as part of a joint effort between the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service to establish limited helicopter tour routes over Great Smoky Mountains National Park along with protocols geared to reduce the environmental and visitor impact of the flights.

The flights are already occurring, and have been for years; park service officials said in a news release that 946 flights per year would be allowed under the Air Tour Management Plan, in line with current levels of helicopter tours conducted each year by two operators outside the park.

The park service and FAA plan a virtual public meeting on the proposed tour routes at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 16. Public comment is accepted through Oct. 3, and can be entered into the record at the Smokies Air Tour Management Plan website.

"Great Smoky Mountains National Park is among 24 parks of the National Park System developing air tour management plans in cooperation with the FAA," park officials said in a press release.

"The agencies hope to complete all air tour management plans by the end of August 2022. The schedule is part of a plan approved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for the agencies to comply with the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 within two years."

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transportation electrification in the SE 2021 email banner

Because most electricity is generated locally, shifting to electric transportation might save consumers money at the plug.

(This story was reported and written by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy).

Electrifying transportation could provide an economic boon for Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee. That’s what the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) reveals in a new analysis, “Retained Transportation Fuel Spending in the Southeast: Electric vs. Internal Combustion Vehicles.”

 

SACE analyzed how much consumers spend on gas and diesel and how much of that transportation fuel spending remains in a given Southeast state and how much leaves. The analysis then looked at what happens if all on-road gas and diesel-powered cars, trucks, and buses are replaced with vehicles that drive entirely on electricity.

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What We Found: $47 Billion on the Table

FUELING TRANSPORTATION IS EXPENSIVE

Southeast consumers spend approximately $94 billion on gas and diesel fuels annually. And because the region has nearly no oil production or refining operations, only about one-third of that amount — approximately $30 billion — is retained in our region’s economy, and the rest leaves to pay for the imported fuels. That adds up to $64 billion leaking out of our region’s economy every year. 

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Certified master bander Mark Armstrong tends gently to a tufted titmouse shortly before turning his attention to a hummingbird. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Ijams Nature Center offers a celebration of winged creatures that can bring us all to new heights

The hummingbird buzzed to freedom from a loving human hand into the early midsummer morning.

It was the latest bird to be tagged after collection from a harmless mist net as volunteer naturalists introduced the uninitiated and curious to the simple wonder of birds and the more complicated collections of data needed to ensure their wellbeing.

The hummingbird, along with at least one tufted titmouse, was just one of many feathered friends captured in the pleasantly cool air at Ijams and described in detail by naturalists and friends Saturday morning (Aug. 28) during Ijams Nature Center’s biggest annual educational showcase: the Hummingbird Festival: Celebration of Wings, presented by Ergon Terminaling Inc. and Trust Company of Tennessee.

But it was also a celebration of connections between earth and air as attendees passed from conservation displays to food and natural products and crafts stands. Animals on display ranged from an owl and groundhog to an apple-chewing opossum. 

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Abrams Falls and motorcycle crash claim two lives in Smokies area

Abrams Falls

Two people died while on outings in the Smokies area.

One man drowned at the base of Abrams Creek Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park; the other was killed when his motorcycle veered off Foothills Parkway into a drainage ditch, according to the National Park Service.

In Friday's incident, Stephen Musser, 73, of Roswell, Georgia, was pushed under while swimming beneath the falls at about 2:15 p.m. His body, which was entrapped in debris under the surface, was recovered about seven hours later by divers from the Blount Special Operations Rescue Team. 

Park officials warned visitors about the risks involved in entering park waters, noting unexpectedly strong currents and sieve-like debris common in streams and rivers.

Sixty people have drowned within the national park over its 85-year history; 10 of those have perished near Abrams Falls, according to the park service.

Rangers also responded at about 11:35 a.m. Saturday to a fatal motorcycle crash on Foothills Parkway between Walland and Wears Valley.

Park officials said David Birdsong, 57, was heading south at mile marker 24 when he lost control of his motorcycle and left the roadway. He was pronounced dead while en route to a hospital.

Rangers said speed appeared to be a factor in the crash.

Birdsong was the fourth motorcyclist to die on the parkway or in the national park this year.

Car crashes account for 40 percent of fatalities along the parkway or in the national park. Twenty percent of those fatalities involve motorcycles, national park officials said.

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Respected environmental reporter Jamie Satterfield leaving Knoxville News Sentinel

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Compass: Unknown if Jamie Satterfield's exit tied to impassioned, personal pleas she made to Anderson County Commission

Jamie Satterfield, a journalist known for her aggressive coverage of the deadly TVA coal slurry spill in 2008 in Kingston and other environmental problems related to coal ash and its storage, is departing the Knoxville News Sentinel at the end of the month, Compass reported in its daily newsletter.

The News Sentinel declined comment on her departure; she did too -- until Sept. 2.

Satterfield's byline was always a comfort to see because you knew you were reading something written by someone who not only knew how to tell a good story, but how to do it with intelligence, talent, passion, accuracy and grace.

In addition to her award-winning environmental reporting, mainly focused recently on the dangers of coal ash after at least 50 workers perished after coal-spill remediation efforts in Kingston, she was a keen crime reporter who could tell a great, if ultimately sad, story.

Satterfield is a native of Gatlinburg.

The News Sentinel's highest-profile reporter will depart the paper Sept. 1, Compass reported.

Her departure follows a heart-felt address to the Anderson County Operations Committee during an August meeting in which she implored them to shut down a playground where Duke University researchers concluded there was coal ash toxicity. The exchange was captured on YouTube, according to Compass.

"During the meeting, Satterfield went to the podium and identified herself as a News Sentinel representative. She touched on the toxins in coal ash, criticized TVA, talked about the diseases afflicting the former workers and called on the committee to take action," Compass reported.
 
“'You all can protect children, starting today, and you can hold TVA accountable,'" she said, choking back tears. Twice during her nearly eight-minute address, she said she would probably be fired for speaking out."
 

It was an apparent breach of journalistic etiquette and ethics for a seasoned, traditional news reporter who is expected to be a dispassionate observer.

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