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Make your voice heard for environmental justice

The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council is seeking public input on a series of recommendations to the Biden Administration to address environmental justice issues across the United States. Air and water pollution caused by coal mining, toxic coal ash spills, and natural gas pipelines are a few examples of such problems in our region. These issues often impact low-income people and people of color the most, and there is a strong need for communities impacted by fossil fuels to build vibrant, diversified economies. 

This is a chance for you to communicate your concerns about how these environmental issues impact disadvantaged communities while important policy decisions are under development! 

The council will meet on May 13 to discuss:  

  • Environmental justice policy recommendations to Congress and the Biden Administration;

  • A new Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which will help identify disadvantaged communities and target federal funding; 

  • Updates to a Clinton-era Executive Order (EO 12898) which directed federal agencies to address environmental justice issues in Black and Brown communities and among low-income populations. 

Public comments will be accepted in writing until May 27. To submit a written comment, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Register to attend the meeting or submit your comment today!

Public comments will help to inform the future work of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and they will be incorporated into the record for federal agencies’ consideration. 

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widows creek

SACE: TVA must also wean itself off natural gas and nuclear reliance

As previously reported by Hellbender Press, Tennessee Valley Authority plans to shut down its five remaining coal plants by 2050 and pursue a carbon-neutral future.

TVA board members spoke favorably of the decision at its regular meeting on Thursday.

"TVA CEO Jeff Lyash shared a vision of how TVA will continue to support the Valley for years to come with a commitment to sustainability. The board also endorsed a strategic focus on decarbonization and a commitment to providing a reliable, low-cost energy supply as TVA moves into the future," according to a statement released Thursday by TVA.

"TVA leadership issued a Strategic Intent and Guiding Principles document to provide direction for developing business strategies that provide reliable, resilient, low-cost and clean energy to the region. View the Executive Summary of the document.

"TVA’s new Carbon Report outlines TVA’s commitment and path to reduce carbon in the coming years without compromising the reliability and low rates the Valley has come to expect. The report outlines TVA’s leadership today in carbon reduction, our plan to achieve 70 percent reduction by 2030, our path to 80 percent reduction by 2035 and our aspiration to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050."

Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy generally lauded TVA's sustainability mission, but released the following detailed response Thursday afternoon:

"The agency’s intentions fall far short of the Biden Administration’s goal of decarbonizing the nation’s electric grid by 2035, a timeframe recommended by scientists to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.


"During an interview on WBIR’s “Inside Tennessee,” aired May 2, Lyash stated the agency aspires to be net-zero carbon by 2050, with an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2035. Lyash’s statements follow his comments during a virtual forum hosted on April 28 by the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center that TVA intends to retire five coal-fired fossil plants still in operation by 2035. While a step in the right direction, being coal-free is not equivalent to being carbon-free. 

"The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s latest report shows TVA plans to build 1,500 MW of fossil gas capacity to be online by 2023. Intentions to retire the five remaining active coal plants with an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 and aspirations for net-zero carbon by 2050 are not only out of step with the Biden Administration, but also potentially improbable if the utility plans to continue to build out fossil gas plants.

"In fact, SACE’s recent analysis shows that according to TVA’s latest resource plans and announced projects, and taking into account TVA’s history and projected rate of decarbonization, TVA is not on track to fully decarbonize by 2050. Without announcing formal resource plans that greatly increase utilization of clean energy like solar, energy efficiency, and battery storage that can be analyzed through an integrated resource planning (IRP) process, there is no guarantee TVA will reach net-zero emissions even by 2050.

"As the nation’s largest public power utility and as an extension of the Biden Administration, TVA has the ability and resources to lead by example and demonstrate the path to zero carbon by the Administration’s goal of 2035, not fifteen years later. Better yet, SACE has called on TVA to play a leading role by formally setting a target to be a carbon-free power system by 2030, ahead of the Administration’s 2035 goal," according to SACE. 

"Utility sector decarbonization is achievable through a federal Clean Electricity Standard with robust clean energy investments and justice-centered policies, according to a report by Evergreen Collaborative, “A Roadmap to 100% Clean Electricity by 2035.”

"TVA needs to immediately initiate and update its integrated resource plan (IRP) and begin the proper procedures to follow the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in order to accelerate 100 percent decarbonization of their grid by 2035 at the latest — not partially at 80 percent by 2035 or 100 percent by 2050.

Stephen Smith, the executive director of SACE, said in the release: “As an extension of the Administration, TVA executive staff and board leadership should embrace policies and goals in line with the Biden Administration to achieve a low-cost, highly reliable, carbon-free electricity grid by 2035. SACE believes that TVA could lead by example and reach the carbon-free goal by 2030 if they take the necessary action now."

"The current TVA CEO’s public statements are out of step with the Biden Administration’s goals. With accountable leadership, collaborative planning, and commitment, TVA has the opportunity to once again embrace the mission to be a “utility yardstick” of innovative environmental stewardship and job creation," Smith said.

(Smith also serves on the board of the Foundation for Global Sustainability. Hellbender Press is a self-supporting project of FGS).

 

 

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Book cover Saving Americas Amazon in Alabama

 

Alabama is home to remarkably diverse ecosystems:
They face dire threats.

This story was originally published by The Revelator.

When longtime environmental journalist Ben Raines started writing a book about the biodiversity in Alabama, the state had 354 fish species known to science. When he finished writing 10 years later, that number had jumped to 450 thanks to a bounty of new discoveries. Crawfish species leaped from 84 to 97 during the same time.

It’s indicative of a larger trend: Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but few people know it. And even scientists are still discovering the rich diversity of life that exists there, particularly in the Mobile River basin.

All this newly discovered biodiversity is also gravely at risk from centuries of exploitation, which is what prompted Raines to write his new book, "Saving America's Amazon.".

The Revelator talked with Raines about why this region is so biodiverse, why it’s been overlooked, and what efforts are being made to protect it.

Question: What makes Alabama, and particularly the Mobile River system, so biodiverse?

Answer: The past kind of defines the present in Alabama.

During the ice ages, when much of the nation was frozen under these giant glaciers, Alabama wasn’t. The glaciers petered out by the time they hit Tennessee. It was much colder but things here didn’t die.

Everything that had evolved in Alabama over successive ice ages is still here. We have a salamander, the Red Hills salamander, that branched off from all other salamander trees 50 million years ago. So this is an ancient salamander, but it’s still here because it never died out.

The other thing you have here, in addition to not freezing, is that it’s really warm. Where I am in Mobile, we’re on the same latitude as Cairo. So the same sun that bakes the Sahara Desert is baking here.

But we also have the rainiest climate in the United States along Alabama’s coast. It actually rains about 70 inches a year here. By comparison, Seattle gets about 55 inches. It makes for a sort of greenhouse effect where we have this intense sun and then plenty of water. Alabama has more miles of rivers and streams than any other state.

Things just grow here.

The pitcher plant bogs of Alabama, for example, are literally among the most diverse places on the planet. In the 1960s a scientist went out and counted every species of flowering plant in an Alabama pitcher plant bog. He came up with 63. That was the highest total found on Earth in a square meter for a decade or more.

For a long time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was thought to be the center of oak tree diversity in the world because they have about 15 species of oaks in the confines of the park. Well, two years ago scientists working in this area called the Red Hills along the Alabama River found 20 species of oak trees on a single hillside. It’s just staggering.

Why is Alabama’s rich biodiversity not well known or studied?

The state was never known for being a biodiverse place until the early 2000s, when NatureServe came out with this big survey of all the states. It surprised everyone because it showed Alabama leading in aquatic diversity in all the categories — more species of fish, turtles, salamanders, mussels, snails.

This blew everybody away because Alabama in everybody’s mind is the civil rights protests of the 1960s, the KKK, steel mills and cotton fields. But that’s not what’s in Alabama, that’s what we’ve done to Alabama since we’ve been here.

I think part of it also has to do with being a long way from Harvard and Yale and Stanford and the great research institutions that were sending biologists all over the world. Alabama just wasn’t really studied or explored.

Again and again, the story in Alabama is that nobody has ever looked.

That’s one of E.O. Wilson’s big messages about Alabama. He is our most famous living scientist, I would say, or certainly biologist. He grew up here, and now in his twilight years his big mission has become trying to save Alabama. And he describes it as less explored than Borneo and says we have no idea what miracle cures and things we may find in the Mobile River system, which is what I call “America’s Amazon.”

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What stories could the lonely Fort Sanders Hellmann's jar share about its weekend excesses?

Whites addition 1886 tn1The early Fort Sanders neighborhood is shown here in the late 1800s. Many, but not all, of the architectural period homes have been demolished.  Wikipedia

(Note from the author: This piece is about my neighborhood — Fort Sanders in Knoxville near the University of Tennessee. I wrote this for my environmental journalism class with Dr. Mark Littmann. We were tasked with writing a sketch about the world around us. I wanted to paint a picture of what I see outside every day when I walk around Fort Sanders.) 


There’s a half-full jar of mayonnaise in the front yard.

Its lid is gone, nowhere to be found. Next to it are a trio of Bud Light Premium glass bottles, lounging in the mud.

Up the street are two smashed cans, three Styrofoam to-go containers, and a smattering of cardboard, all left out in the cold to weather the harsh judgement of Sunday morning.

Every few feet more treasures appear. Cans, bottles, broken glass, clothes, needles, and old furniture. None of it looks out of place here. The green crab grass grows through the pull tabs and gray squirrels play with leftover food on the sidewalk.

Nothing is where it should be, but it all feels right; it's an extra blanket of junk tucking the earth in for bed.

Except for the mayonnaise jar in the yard.

Collecting these treasures off the street feels hopeless. The moment a piece of garbage makes it into the trash bag, two more pieces appear.

Memories of Saturday night are left out in the gutter, no one to share them with. It happens every week. Stories of a fun night with friends cast aside into the storm drain. A nice meal left out in the rain. Cigarette butts from a moment alone.

What story does the mayonnaise in the yard have to tell?

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Color photograph shows the grassy herbaceous ground cover and the trees planted in straight rows; This walnut orchard was planted by the Tennessee Valley Authority as part of its early mission to promote the growth of economically useful trees in the Tennessee Valley.   Courtesy UT Tree Improvement Program

Part I of this three-part series examines how the development of civilizations and rapid population growth gave rise to forest tree domestication. Parts II and III will discuss the role that the University of Tennessee’s Tree Improvement Program has played in forest sustainability by contributing to the productivity and health of Tennessee’s present and future forests.

Wood and lumber figured prominently in ancient civilizations, ranging from everyday use for warmth, cooking, and shelter to specialty uses like veneers for furniture and construction with scented woods. 

No matter what continent or hemisphere, as human civilizations evolved from collections of nomad hunter-gatherers to the steel, brick, glass, and mortar cities of today, the impact on forested land proportionally increased. As villages became towns and, eventually, cities, forests were harvested in an ever-increasing radius around the population centers. Wild animals and plants were also harvested in the same manner, drastically altering ecosystems and causing massive erosion.

Nations that quickly exhausted the best trees in their limited forested lands, like ancient Egypt and Greece, met wood demands for construction or specialty products by importing wood from other nations. The then-rich forests of Lebanon and Cyprus were harvested to export timber to countries suffering from a timber famine.  

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Photograph overlooking a progression of denseley wooded riges becoming increasingly more shrouded in bluis haze. Low-hanging clouds look like layers of cotton filling the proximate valley bottoms of this vast, undisturbed laandscape.
The western end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park as seen from Foothills Parkway.   Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press 

Four visitors have disappeared without a trace from the Great Smoky Mountains in the last 50 years. Where did they go?

In a lateral move from late-night doom-scrolling, I've grown obsessed with reading about people who have gone missing in national parks. The National Park Service website currently lists ​28 “cold cases”​ ranging from unsolved murders and suspected suicides to just ... gone. No body, nary a footprint or broken branch, no lingering scent for search dogs. Just ​poof​. The silhouette of a life vanishing into mist.

I lie awake at 2, 3, 4 o’clock, hypnotized by the white glow of my phone, trawling abandoned blogs and conspiratorial subreddits for clues. I turn their disappearances over and over in my mind like a piece of quartz, glassy yet opaque, a fogged-up window I can’t quite see through.

Eight of these cold cases are from Yosemite, five are from the Grand Canyon, two are from Shenandoah Valley, and there’s one apiece from Mesa Verde, Crater Lake, Hawai’i Volcanoes, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Chiricahua National Monument. Another four are from the Great Smoky Mountains, the wild and tangled backdrop of my east Tennessee home.

I’ve ventured furthest down the rabbit holes of the ones gone missing from the Smokies. Having spent a lot of time in the Park I’m familiar with the trails from which they disappeared. I’ve hiked them myself, one in an oblivious single-file search party of so many other Park visitors. It’s a strange feeling to know that you’ve literally walked along a path which, for someone else, led to … where did it lead?

 
MP Martin
 
Dennis Martin (1969):​6-year-old boy, dark brown eyes and hair, gone missing on Father’s Day weekend. He was playing with other children while on a family outing at the Spence Field area of the Appalachian Trail. Dennis hid behind a bush, planning a sneak attack on the parents, and was never seen again. Search efforts spanning 56 square miles, a grid combed by 1,400 volunteers -- the largest search in the history of the Smokies -- revealed no answers, although one sock and shoe were found. Several years afterward, an illegal ginseng hunter came forward, claiming he had found the skull and other remains of a small boy in the vicinity.
 
MP Gibson
 
Teresa "Trenny" Gibson (1976): ​16-year-old female, 5’3 and 115 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes, last seen wearing a brown plaid jacket, blue jeans and Adidas shoes. She was on a field trip from Bearden High School, with 40 other students and one teacher chaperone, to hike Clingmans Dome to Andrew’s Bald. Students last reported seeing her in the distance, bending over and taking a right turn off the trail. When the group reconvened in the parking lot to go home, Trenny was missing. A can of beer and three cigarette butts were found near the spot where she stepped off the trail, causing speculation that she was abducted in nearly plain view.
 
MP Melton
 
Pauline "Polly" Melton (1981): ​58-year-old female, tall and matronly with glasses and a poof of graying hair, last seen wearing a pink and white blouse, tan slacks and glasses. She and her husband, Bob, wintered in Florida and spent the warmer months in their airstream at Deep Creek Campground with a group of friends. One afternoon Polly set some spaghetti sauce to simmer for dinner and went for a walk on an easy, well-marked trail with two friends, Red and Trula, as she did most days. About an hour in, Polly suddenly picked up the pace and left the women behind. When they called out to her, they said she looked back, laughed and kept going. She never arrived back at the campground.
 
MP Lueking
 
Derek Lueking (2012)​: 24-year-old male with a ½-inch beard and a tattoo of Japanese characters translating to “life” on his chest. He was a fan of survivalist TV shows and bought a bunch of supplies before heading to the Park -- maps, a Gerber ax, a military survival manual, a knife sharpener, a Coleman combination compass and thermometer, 100 feet of paracute cord, a headlamp, a pocket knife, granola bars, an iPod pouch, and a Bear Grylls survival tool pack including a small flashlight, a fire starter and a multi-tool. His white Ford Escape was found at Newfound Gap, but he’d left much of the supplies in the car, including his tent and sleeping bag. Also a note that read, “Don’t follow me.” Derek’s family maintains a Facebook page dedicated to finding him, last updated in November 2020: “As you slip farther and farther away, we miss you still.”
 
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