In rural #Colorado, the kids of #coal miners learn to install #solar panels — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Ethan Bates and Cody Sauve adjust the wiring box on a solar array outside their Delta High School classroom. Bates’ father was a coal mine foreman. Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

From The High Country News (Nick Bowlin):

At a picnic table in a dry grass field, a group of elementary school students watched as high school senior Xavier Baty, a broad-shouldered 18-year-old in a camouflage ball cap and scuffed work boots, attached a hand-sized solar panel cell to a small motor connected to a fan. He held the panel to face the setting Colorado sun, adjusting its angle to vary the fan speed.

“Want to hear a secret?” he asked the kids around him. “This is the only science class I ever got an A in.”

As he readily acknowledges, Baty hasn’t been the most enthusiastic science student at Delta High School. This class, however, is different. Along with a group of other seniors and a few juniors, Baty is enrolled in “Solar Energy Training.” The class not only provides a science credit needed for graduation; it also trains students for careers in solar energy or the electrical trades. It allows Baty to work with his hands, something he enjoys, while positioning him for employment in a fast-growing industry.

In Colorado’s North Fork Valley, solar energy — along with a strong organic farm economy and recreation dollars — is helping to fill the economic hole left by the dying coal industry, which sustained the area for more than 120 years. When the mines still ran, graduating seniors could step immediately into good-paying jobs. But in the past five years, two of Delta County’s three mines have closed. Approximately 900 local mining jobs have been lost in the past decade. Ethan Bates, for example, another senior in the solar energy training class, is the son of a mine foreman who lost his job when the Bowie Mine outside Paonia closed in 2016. Now, he’ll graduate as a certified solar panel installer.

National environmental and climate groups often discuss “just transitions” for fossil-fuel dependent communities like Delta, or Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Mining companies are going bankrupt, while every year, solar and other renewables get cheaper. Such economic shifts are complex, but one thing is clear: If the transition to renewables is to truly account for the communities and economies it undercuts, it will include programs like Delta High School’s solar training. The class positions young people for success in a coal-free future, and does so from the ground up, attentive to the needs and cares of the local community.

National environmental and climate groups often discuss “just transitions” for fossil-fuel dependent communities like Delta, or Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Mining companies are going bankrupt, while every year, solar and other renewables get cheaper. Such economic shifts are complex, but one thing is clear: If the transition to renewables is to truly account for the communities and economies it undercuts, it will include programs like Delta High School’s solar training. The class positions young people for success in a coal-free future, and does so from the ground up, attentive to the needs and cares of the local community.

SCIENCE TEACHER BEN GRAVES started the class four years ago. Described by a student as “cool” but with a “mad-scientist vibe,” Graves has a salt-and-pepper beard and dresses casually in trail-running shoes and hardwearing khaki pants. In class, he is affable but authoritative.

As a teacher, Graves sees his main duty as educating young people and creating good citizens. But to do right by his students, he needs to set them up for success under the current economic realities. And that requires classes like solar training. “I think we have to be doing some sort of trades education,” he said. “For a kid with a high school diploma, working service is really all you can do without more training.”

Many students in the solar class, like Baty, weren’t particularly successful in traditional science classes. They’re kids who haven’t “played the school game,” as Graves put it, of college admission and standardized tests. For these students, training in electrical trades has now joined ranks with welding and agriculture programs offered by the high school.

In the past four years, the class has helped install two solar arrays behind Delta High School. Students have done much of the work designing the structures and digging the trenches to lay conduit cables. This year for their final project, they will take apart and fully re-install one of the solar arrays. According to Graves, teachers at other local schools are keen to integrate solar training into their classes. Solar Energy International, a local nonprofit and a major catalyst behind the Delta class, is working to integrate solar training into science curriculum across the region.

These projects are a boon to public school budgets, which lost a tax base when the mines closed. On a school day, the projects can supply about 10% of Delta High School’s energy demand — up to 30% on weekends. Thanks to a municipal cap, Graves said, the school has reached the limit on how much solar it can install, but even the current amount makes a difference.

“The facilities folks at first waved it away as a class project,” Graves said with a laugh. “Now, maintenance sees it as a real way to reduce demand charges. It went from us pushing some of this stuff on the administration to them saying, ‘Wait a second, we actually want this.’”

The economics of renewables are changing Delta at the county level, too. The area’s electric cooperative, Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) is ending its contract with its wholesale power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. Tri-State long required that buyers like DMEA purchase 95% of their electricity from the utility, limiting the amount of solar and other renewables local co-ops could produce. The company is notorious for its continued reliance on coal-fired power plants.

For many Delta residents, solar offers a certain self-sufficiency and local independence they find appealing, as evidenced by DMEA’s defection from corporate control. It’s also cheaper: DMEA can cut customer costs by increasing its share of renewable power. As a rural electric co-op, DMEA’s members call the shots, and in October 2018, they voted to raise money and sell stocks in order to buy out their Tri-State contract. Politically, Delta County might not be an obvious leader in renewable energy; it voted for President Trump by about 70%. But solar panels on homes and businesses are increasingly common, with demand sometimes outstripping the capacity of local solar firms.

In the school district where Graves works, DMEA has encouraged the adoption of solar by funding solar arrays at every high school in its service area. Through SEI, the co-op has administered grants for Graves’ class, and it funds solar trainings for teachers across the area.

FROM AN EDUCATIONAL VIEW, the solar class’ value rests in its capacity to combine technical training and scientific learning outside the traditional grade structure. This dynamic was on full display on a bright fall day in October. The class was participating in an energy reduction contest against other Delta County high schools. Sponsored by the Colorado Energy Office, the Renew Our Schools program promotes student-run energy efficiency projects. At the end of the five-week competition, the winning school would receive $12,000.

The contest transformed the kids from students to energy auditors. Graves sent them out to prowl the hallways, counting light bulbs and measuring the energy used by the tech lab’s computers. In the hallways, every other light fixture is dark, the bulbs removed by solar students. At a separate table, another group used the data to calculate savings if the building’s sodium vapor bulbs were replaced by LED lights. Lights, the kids found, account for about half of the school’s peak power demand.

All this activity halted when tragedy struck in early November. Gannon Hines, a senior who hoped to use his solar skills upon graduating, died in a car accident. Three other students were in the car, and one remains badly hurt. Graves did not try to teach in the dark days of mourning that followed; instead, he simply let the students talk and remember their friend. He contemplated calling off the competition, but Hines had been one of the class’ more enthusiastic members.

“We talked about whether to stop or to keep going with the competition, and we decided to keep going for Gannon,” said Allora McClellan, another senior.

On the final day of the competition, just before Thanksgiving, it was clear Delta was going to lose, and some of the students were frustrated. They had redoubled their efforts after the heartbreak but came up short. It’s easier for smaller schools to show large energy-use cuts, and Delta is the largest school in the district. Students grumbled about an unfair contest. (In December, the school was awarded $2,000 by the state for their efforts. The funds will help replace fluorescent bulbs with LEDs.)

As the hour wound down toward lunch, Graves watched a group of students finish some final kilowatt calculations. A few were already drifting toward the door.

“Hey,” he said, “let’s finish our work.”

This story was originally published at High Country News on December 13, 2019.

One coal mine remains open in the North Fork Valley. Photo/Allen Best

Decision on RMR quarry expansion near Glenwood Springs could take years — The Aspen Times

The proposed expansion of the Mid-Contintent Limestone Quarry above Glenwood Springs by the politically connected Rocky Mountain Resources has spurred the city to create a taxpayer funded campaign against the plan. The mine’s existing footprint of roughly 16 acres is in yellow and the proposed expansion is in red. Photo credit: City of Glenwood Springs via The Colorado Sun

From The Aspen Times (Thomas Phippen):

…if history is a guide, the process to a decision about whether to approve or deny RMR’s expansion proposal could take years.

The time line of the environmental review of the project, which would expand the limestone quarry from about 23 acres to 321 acres and remove millions of tons of rock per year, is anything but certain.

“The (Bureau of Land Management)’s current estimate for starting the formal (environmental impact statement) is summer 2020, although that could change to be earlier or later depending on the status of the studies and as BLM gathers more information,” according to a BLM fact sheet on the quarry proposal.

The agency has a number of baseline studies to complete before the environmental review process can begin in earnest, so the schedule is up in the air, according to BLM spokesman David Boyd.

“We just don’t know. It’s not like we have a schedule and I’m not saying what it is, we just have to wait and see where all the parts are,” Boyd said.

One part of the baseline studies is a hydrological analysis.

The study required several test wells and monitoring of the groundwater for a year. RMR planned to begin drilling the monitoring wells in the fall.

Due to the intense interest in all things related to the quarry, however, the BLM asked for public comments on issuing a categorical exclusion to approve the test wells.

After receiving 250 comments, and a last-minute letter from Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., urging more environmental review, the BLM decided to conduct an environmental assessment with “a detailed analysis of potential impacts of drilling the wells.”

That analysis has begun, Boyd said, and should be complete in the next few months.

Because of the scoping period in late 2019, the assessment will not need additional public comment, Boyd said.

The hydrological study needs a year’s worth of data from all four seasons, but there’s a chance that the BLM could begin public comment, scoping and other parts of the environmental impact statement before all the hydrological data is in, Boyd said.

Still, the process “certainly (won’t start) before summer, and likely at this point later than that,” Boyd said.

In addition to the hydrologic study, the BLM is conducting a cave and karst study to research underground features on the proposed quarry site, an ethnographic study and an anthropologic and cultural study.

Many of those studies have begun, Boyd said…

The average amount of time it takes for the BLM to complete an environmental impact statement is nearly four and a half years, according to a 2017 analysis of the process by the White House.

The process will officially begin when the BLM posts notice of intent to complete an environmental impact statement.

Then there will be periods of scoping and public comment, which will likely include public meetings.

When the BLM completes a draft of the statement, it will be made available for additional public comment. The average time from formal notice to draft EIS is nearly two and a half years at the BLM. From the draft to a final statement is another year and a half, on average, and then it usually takes another six months before the final decision is announced.

Many environmental reviews take less time; a few take a decade or more.

Backlog of toxic #Superfund cleanups grows under @POTUS — the Associated Press

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage. Photo via the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

From the Associated Press (Ellen Nickmeyer, Matthew Brown, and Ed White) via The Aurora Sentinel:

The Trump administration has built up the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund cleanup projects in at least 15 years, nearly triple the number that were stalled for lack of money in the Obama era, according to 2019 figures quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency over the winter holidays.

The accumulation of Superfund projects that are ready to go except for money comes as the Trump administration routinely proposes funding cuts for Superfund and for the EPA in general. The four-decade-old Superfund program is meant to tackle some of the most heavily contaminated sites in the U.S. and Trump has declared it a priority even while seeking to shrink its budget…

The unfunded projects are in 17 states and Puerto Rico. They range from abandoned mines that discharged heavy metals and arsenic in the West to an old wood pulp site in Mississippi and a defunct dry cleaner that released toxic solvents in North Carolina…

two former EPA officials whose work dealt with Superfund oversight said the growing backlog of stalled Superfund projects under the Trump administration, and steady or ebbing numbers of cleanup construction projects completed, point to a different picture.

“They’re misleading Congress and the public about the funds that are needed to really protect the public from exposure to the toxic chemicals,” said Elizabeth Southerland, who worked for 30 years at EPA, including as director of science and technology in the water office, before retiring in 2017. ”It’s detrimental.”

This is a “regulatory failure,” said Judith Enck, who served as the EPA’s regional northeastern U.S. administrator under President Barack Obama…

Asked what the EPA spent money on instead, and why the agency didn’t ask Congress for more to deal with the growing backlog, EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage offered few specifics Thursday.

The EPA’s Superfund program “will continue to prioritize new construction projects based on which sites present the greatest risk to human health and the environment,” Sauerhage said in an email. “Further, the agency maintains the authority to respond to and fund emergencies at these sites if there is an imminent threat to human health and the environment.”

She pointed to some areas where Trump’s Superfund effort was more on par with that of his predecessors. Long-term remedial efforts to make sure contamination didn’t rebound at existing Superfund sites, for example, averaged 64 a year under Trump. That compares with an average of 60 a year in Obama’s last five years.

But overall, the backlog of 34 unfunded projects is up from only 12 in 2016, Obama’s last year , and the most at least since 2004.

At the site of another of 2019’s unfunded Superfund projects, Montana’s Upper Tenmile mining region, which includes the community of Rimini and a subdivision downstream, the EPA has been providing bottled water to residents for the past decade in response to water supplies polluted by about 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines.

Pollution still flows from the mines and into Upper Tenmile Creek more than 20 years after the area was added to the Superfund list.

About 6 miles from Rimini in the rural Landmark subdivision is a huge pile of contaminated soil that was removed from residential yards. It was supposed to be hauled away but now has weeds growing over it after sitting untouched for several years, said Patrick Keim, who lives nearby…

EPA has been one of the main focuses of Trump’s efforts to cut federal regulations and oversight that he sees as burdening businesses. Trump each year has asked Congress for nearly one-third cuts in EPA’s budget, and has sought much smaller cuts for Superfund.

Congress has kept both levels of funding roughly even.

Colorado River District working to protect West Slope water users — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

A large irrigation canal in the Grand Valley, which relies on water from the Colorado River to irrigate fields. The state is exploring how a voluntary, temporary and compensated water-use reduction plan, known as demand management, might work. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Here’s a guest column from Andy Mueller that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

At the Colorado River District, we are working to ensure that whatever the future holds, there’s water on the West Slope to support our way of life.

Whether you grow food, rely on clean water from your kitchen tap, or recreate on our rivers, the River District is working to develop every tool possible to ensure that West Slope water users are represented and protected.

In fact, the District recently received a $315,000 “WaterSMART” grant, which we will use to analyze many of the risks that we face on the West Slope in an uncertain water future.

Despite the optimism from recent snowfall, Colorado is still amid a prolonged decline of flows in the Colorado River — and facing more variable weather conditions and snowpack with each passing year. When you combine that with growing population in the Colorado River basin, both in Colorado and downstream, we’re looking at an uncertain water supply.

Under the Colorado River Compact, Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin are required to keep a certain amount of water flowing to states in the Lower Basin. But declining flows have signaled a risk to that obligation. And continued drought could mean water users in the Centennial State might have to reduce water use in the future without compensation in order to meet this compact commitment.

As part of a multi-state plan to avoid that, Colorado is exploring the feasibility of a program called demand management, which would pay farmers, industry and cities to voluntarily and temporarily reduce water use in order to bank it in reservoirs for use in preventing an uncompensated call. At the Colorado River District, we have concerns about whether such a program is advisable or necessary, but even as we seek answers to those concerns, others are looking at how such a program will be structured.

Right now, there are a lot of questions. As Colorado decides if and how demand management would be implemented, we want to advocate for rules that are the best possible for West Slope water users. We are studying the hypotheticals and talking to a broad set of water users to understand what might work in western Colorado.

The Colorado River District received its $315,000 WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a federal water planning program. We will be working with the Southwestern Water Conservation District, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, The Nature Conservancy, Basin Roundtables, the state of Colorado and others to study risks to our water supply. Leveraging these federal funds and partnerships allows us to do more to protect West Slope water users.

Agricultural producers play a critical role in our local economies, whether it’s equipment repairs at a local mechanic or a ranch hand buying a burger at the local diner. Our main street businesses could see changes if farmers, even temporarily, aren’t farming.

To understand how our local economies might be affected by demand management, the River District is sponsoring a study of the potential secondary economic impacts that such a program could have on the businesses and communities that West Slope agriculture supports.

The grant will also fund the next phase of a multi-year study to understand the risk to Colorado’s water users if a call under the Colorado River Compact requires that we use less water. This study is designed to give us all an idea of what water rights might be curtailed by a compact call, giving water users across the West Slope a better idea of what could happen to their water.

Finally, the WaterSMART grant will help us bring West Slope water users together to understand how to create a program that makes sense for them. While we can’t get the thousands of water users in the Colorado River District in a room to decide what demand management should look like, we’ll be working with a broad cross-section of water users from different industries and communities in the district to do just that. We want to be sure that if demand management is implemented, it works for ranchers, towns, and rivers in western Colorado.

All these studies and conversations will give West Slope water users the information and tools they need to decide if they should take part in demand management. They will also better allow the Colorado River District to advocate for those users and protect water on the West Slope in an uncertain future.

Brad Udall: “…latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck