Florida Municipally-Owned Electric Utility First in Nation to Stop Use of Mountaintop Removal Coal

Posted Oct. 1, 2014

MP3 Interview with Jason Fults, co-founder of Gainesville Loves Mountains, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Many forms of extreme energy extraction are employed in the United States, like deep-ocean oil drilling or horizontal fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas and oil. Among the oldest and most destructive practices is mountaintop removal coal mining, where the tops of mountain ridges in Appalachia are literally blown off to mine the coal seams, resulting in the waste rock and earth being dumped into the valleys below, often burying headwater streams. Opponents of mountaintop removal mining point to studies that have linked this mining process to health problems like cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Local Appalachian residents have been fighting the mining practice for decades, and a recent decision by a publicly-owned electric utility in Gainesville, Florida, demonstrates how others around the country can take action to be support their drive to end mountaintop removal mining.

A 3 1/2-year campaign to end the Gainesville Regional Utilities’ use of coal mined by removing mountaintops was victorious on Sept. 18 when the City Commission voted 5 to 2 to adopt a policy that will pay up to 5 percent more to buy coal that is not mined using mountaintop removal methods. This is the first policy of its kind in the nation to be passed by a municipally owned-utility. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Jason Fults, co-founder of the group Gainesville Loves Mountains, who talks about how this local victory was won and his hope that other communities will follow Gainesville’s example.

JASON FULTS: We were inspired by the national movement to end mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. A lot of folks in Gainesville have connections to Appalachia and were familiar with the issue, and an awful lot more people know and love App as a region and as they've learned about MTR, they've just been horrified. And we're a pretty progressive community that is thinking a lot about energy issues, and so an awful lot of people in the Gainesville community didn't want us to be connected in any way to the practice of MTR. So we've been working for about 3.5 years now to end our utility's purchases of coal that's mined using MTR.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What body exactly voted to nix MTR coal?

JASON FULTS: Well, we have a municipally-owned utility, and so our city commission is essentially the board of our utility. So we've been having conversations with our utility for the past 3.5 years on this issue and basically hit a dead-end with them. Their bottom line was, "We're only pursuing reliable, low-cost fuels. We're agnostic regarding the source of those fuels. If you want to have any further policy direction in this matter, you're going to need to go to the city commission." So that's what we did; we went and convinced our city commission to issue a policy directive on MTR coal.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And they agreed to pay a premium for non-MTR coal, right?

JASON FULTS: Right. So the policy preference is deep-mined coal from Appalachia and says it allows our fuel purchasers to pay up to a five percent premium to buy deep-mined coal and avoid the purchase of surface mined or MTR coal.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jason Fults, I've covered this issue for several years and I've never heard of a utility voting to not use MTR coal. Is Gainesville the first?

JASON FULTS: That's what we believe to be true. We've been working very closely with Appalachian Voices, which is a regional [group] and in the forefront of the fight against MTR coal, and they are aware of policies that have been passed in other instances, for example, Duke Energy has a stated policy [undecipherable] on MTR coal, although it's pretty weak. There have been some colleges and universities that have their own coal-fired power plants that have passed policies. But this is by far the most progressive policy that we're aware of, and the first that's been passed by a municipal utility. So we're optimistic that if the word gets out about this, hopefully some other municipally-owned utilities that are using MTR coal will try and follow our lead on this.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is it hard to find out what the source is of the energy a particular utility uses?

JASON FULTS: No, it's not hard at all, on two fronts. One is that your utility is required to report to the Department of Energy on a regular basis exactly what fuels they're buying and where those fuels are coming from, down to, oftentimes, a specific mine. And so, the folks at Appalachian Voices, they created a really great resource that I highly recommend people check out, called www.ILoveMountains.org. And what you can do with that website, you can actually type in your zipcode and it'll show you the utility providers for your area, and you can pick your utility provider, and it'll show you, down to the mine, where your coal is coming from, and tell you, not only if you're connected to the practice of MTR, but it'll tell you some of the stories of people who live in those communities that are being impacted. So it's a fantastic resource, and that's one of the things that inspired us to start working on this.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, I just have to ask you, this seems like a step in the right direction, but on the other hand, your utility is still using coal, which has the worst local impacts of any form of energy when burned, and arguably also contributes the most to global warming. What about getting off coal entirely?

JASON FULTS: Oh, I mean absolutely. We would definitely like to see our utility off of coal entirely, and I'm pretty sure that will happen within the next five to ten years. Some of the things our utility has been doing – it's really progressive on this front. We've been diversifying our fuel supply; we used to be, like a lot of Florida utilities, heavily, heavily dependent on coal as our primary fuel source. And our coal consumption has actually been dropping pretty significantly, largely due to the natural gas boom, but we're also diversifying our fuel supply in the areas of biomass and solar as well. We were the first utility in the country, I believe, to pass a solar feed-in tariff, so we've got a lot of solar in Gainesville as well and are trying to move more and more in that direction. Like I said, I'm hopeful that we're going to be off coal entirely before too long, but in the meantime, we felt it was a step in the right direction to try and eliminate what we consider to be the worst of the worst fuel sources from our mix.

For more information on Gainesville Loves Mountains in Florida, visit gainesvillelovesmountains.wordpress.com/mountaintop-removal-city-ordinance.

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