The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Voices (67)

Va Tech demographic studyA U.S. map shows counties where residents could (blue) or could not (pink) receive local-specific information about environmental justice issues.  Photo courtesy of Junghwan Kim via Virginia Tech.

Key findings indicate limitations of AI, suggest improvements

David Fleming is a communications specialist at Virginia Tech.

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech researchers have discovered limitations in ChatGPT’s capacity to provide location-specific information about environmental justice issues. Their findings, published in the journal Telematics and Informatics, suggest the potential for geographic biases existing in current generative artificial intelligence (AI) models.

ChatGPT is a large-language model developed by OpenAI Inc., an artificial intelligence research organization. ChatGPT is designed to understand questions and generate text responses based on requests from users. The technology has a wide range of applications from content creation and information gathering to data analysis and language translation.

A county-by-county overview

“As a geographer and geospatial data scientist, generative AI is a tool with powerful potential,” said Assistant Professor Junghwan Kim of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “At the same time, we need to investigate the limitations of the technology to ensure that future developers recognize the possibilities of biases. That was the driving motivation of this research.”

Utilizing a list of the 3,108 counties in the contiguous United States, the research group asked the ChatGPT interface to answer a prompt asking about the environmental justice issues in each county. The researchers selected environmental justice as a topic to expand the range of questions typically used to test the performance of generative AI tools. Asking questions by county allowed the researchers to measure ChatGPT responses against sociodemographic considerations such as population density and median household income. 

Last modified on Sunday, 14 April 2024 23:09


Coal industry acknowledged its contribution to climate change in 1966

KNOXVILLE — It began innocently enough.

A little over four years ago, an old trade journal was rescued en route to a dumpster by a professor from the University of Tennessee’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Professor Chris Cherry had no reason to suspect the journal contained a powerhouse revelation — the coal industry had been aware since 1966 that burning fossil fuels would eventually trigger cataclysmic global warming and had subsequently engaged in a decades-long coverup to protect corporate profits.

Cherry’s surprise discovery soon became international news thanks to a story written by a fellow UT employee, Élan Young, that was picked up by Huffpost. (Young is a regular contributor to Hellbender Press).

Last modified on Saturday, 23 March 2024 21:11

This 90-year-old theater is on a mission to provide a space for Black artists

BSVB Asset 1 1 1
ABINGDON — A historic Southern theatre is fostering the next wave of Black playwrights through Black Stories Black Voices, making a visible impact in the Southern Appalachian theatre community and beyond. 
While theaters nationwide face declining numbers, Barter Theatre is experiencing a surge in audiences eager to witness the creativity of Black artists.
Since the founding of Black Stories, Black Voices in 2020, organizers and artists alike have seen an outpouring of support:
— Growing audiences, especially among Black community members.
— Doubled submissions for play development.
— Becoming a go-to resource for discovering Black talent in theatre.
The 90-year-old Barter Theatre of Abingdon, Virginia is on a mission to provide a safe space for Black artists and audiences to share their stories and assert their belonging in American theatre. In the past four years, it’s become clear: Barter isn’t just a safe space for Black artists — it’s drawing larger, enthusiastic audiences too.
Cris Eli Blak is the latest playwright to participate in Barter’s initiative, which engages Black theatre makers from across the Southern states to identify, develop and present the region’s Black stories on stage. A winner of the 2024 Appalachian Festival of Plays & Playwrights, his play “Girl on a Hill” will be performed on Feb. 23.

— Barter Theatre

Justin Pearson addresses People’s Voice on TVA’s Energy PlanTennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson speaks to community members assembled for the evening discussion during the People’s Voice on TVA’s Energy Plan.  John Waterman/Appalachian Voices

A lack of public process brought together a coalition of environmental organizations 

NASHVILLE  In every state except Tennessee, for-profit utilities and their regulators are required to get public input about energy-resource planning.

These Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs) provide an opportunity for a utility to demonstrate that the ratepayer money the utility spends is on the best mix of energy investments that meet this objective. 

In Tennessee, however, TVA, which is the nation’s largest public power provider, has no process for engaging the public on its IRPs.

It is this lack of public process that brought a coalition of environmental organizations together to host a mock public hearing in a Nashville church last month presided by Ted Thomas, former chair of Georgia Center for Energy Solutions. Their goal was to call attention to the fact that TVA acts more like a corporation or a self-regulated monopoly than as a public utility. The groups say that lack of public involvement in the process harms Tennesseeans across the board. 

Last modified on Saturday, 23 March 2024 21:16

Come talk words with writers at Tremont conference in Smokies

2023 TWC morning workshop Michele SonsWriters discuss their craft during the 2023 Tremont Writers Conference, which returns in October.  GSMIT

TOWNSEND — Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont this fall will host the second annual Tremont Writers Conference, an intensive five-day retreat for writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry coordinated in partnership with Smokies Life, formerly Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Applications to participate in the event may be submitted online through April 30. 

From Wednesday, Oct. 23, through Sunday, Oct. 27, a small group of selected writers will join renowned authors and professional park educators on Tremont’s campus in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Participants will enjoy brainstorming and fine-tuning their work with award-winning author workshop leaders while also learning and writing throughout the day. 


The Southern Environmental Law Center congratulates this year’s Reed Environmental Writing Award winners — Emily Strasser, David Folkenflik, Mario Ariza, and Miranda Green — who all demonstrate the power of writing to capture some of the most important environmental issues facing Southern communities. 

Emily Strasser receives the Reed Award for “Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning with a Hidden History.” In the book, Strasser examines the toxic legacy of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of three secret cities constructed by the Manhattan Project for developing the first atomic bomb. She exposes a suppressed history that forever impacted her family, a community, the nation, and the world. 

David Folkenflik with NPR, and Mario Ariza and Miranda Green with Floodlight, receive the Reed Award for their story, “In the Southeast, power company money flows to news sites that attack their critics.” Their investigation digs into a consulting firm working on behalf of electric utility giants in Alabama and Florida. The team uncovers how money flows from the firm to influence local news sites to push the utilities’ agenda​s​ and attack their critics. 

Everyone is invited to join for a celebration honoring the winners and the 30th anniversary of the Reed Award in person or virtually on March 22 at 5:00 p.m. The in-person event will take place at the CODE Building, located at 225 West Water Street on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA.

Last modified on Saturday, 23 March 2024 16:46

Join policy makers, experts and lawyers to discuss Southern Appalachian enviro and legal issues


KNOXVILLE — The 15th Appalachian Public Interest and Environmental Law Conference (APIEL) is set for Oct. 5 at The University of Tennessee College of Law. 

APIEL is an annual gathering of lawyers, scientists, students, and members of the general public to discuss environmental issues and happenings in Appalachia, public policy, and grassroots initiatives.

The purpose is to create dialogue between lawyers, activists, and scientists on the local areas of need and foster engagement within the community to be forces of change in the legal realm.


APIEL is a conference of the student-run Environmental Law Organization (ELO) at the University of Tennessee College of Law. ELO is not directly affiliated with the University of Tennesse or any particular non-profit organization. It is dedicated to providing students and attorneys with learning opportunities and leadership experiences.

unnamedFormer University of Tennessee Professor John Nolt strolls through his garden during a recent conversation about his career as a philosopher and one of the Southern Appalachian region’s most respected environmental activists.  J.J. Stambaugh/Hellbender Press

Former UTK prof defends the environment, logically

KNOXVILLE — It’s hard to think of many figures in the local environmental movement who command the respect that former University of Tennessee Professor John Nolt has earned over the past four decades.

He has served as a leader, a teacher, and a repository of wisdom for thousands of students and activists. He’s authored eight books on environmental ethics and logic, and he was one of the main players in the struggle to force a cleanup of the notorious David Witherspoon Inc. site in South Knoxville. 

While the 73-year-old philosopher’s formal academic career came to an end a couple of years ago, I feel privileged to report that he’s continued to add to his legacy. You see, it’s come to my attention that quite a few people are curious to know what he’s up to these days, and Hellbender Press agreed that I should chat him up.

Last modified on Saturday, 23 March 2024 21:18

Advance Knox plan gets policy committee approval; heads to other governing boards next

WATE: Knox County approves controversial Advance Knox plan in policy committee 

KNOXVILLE — A Knox County growth plan advanced by Mayor Glenn Jacob’s administration was approved by the guiding committee behind Advance Knox.

Hellbender Press has reported and opined on the growth plan during its development. The plan was touted as a means of reducing sprawl and accompanying taxpayer-funded infrastructure.

Rural and suburban property owners remain dubious whether the proposed revamp of the original Knox County growth plan will control the countywide development encroaching on their land, according to reporting from WATE:

“Kevin Murphy doubles as an advisory committee member and resident of a rural area. He lives off of Washington Pike and said the area has already started morphing into a suburb.

“‘Today, there’s over 17,000 cars a day that pass by my farm. All this growth will increase that a lot and 17,000 cars a day is a pretty significant amount of noise, litter, light pollution, at all times of the hours, so the character is definitely changing,’ he said.”

The plan still needs to be approved by Knox County Commission, city of Knoxville and the town of Farragut.

Thursday, 11 January 2024 14:39

RESCHEDULED: ETSPJ to host annual meeting with Knoxville members of the Tennessee state legislature

KNOXVILLE The East Tennessee chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (ETSPJ) once again will partner with the League of Women Voters Knoxville/Knox County (LWVKKC) to hold the annual legislative forum of the Knox County delegation.

The forum, which was postponed by snow, is now set for 9-10:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 17. 

The event is set for the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center, located at 124 S. Cruze St., in East Knoxville near downtown. A parking lot next to the building and street parking are available.

Jesse Mayshark, an ETSPJ board member and co-founder of Compass Knox, will serve as moderator. The event is open to the public.

Published in Event Archive, Voices
Last modified on Saturday, 17 February 2024 21:22

It was supposed to be the second meeting of the Growth Policy Coordinating Committee

The meeting was not conducted according to its announcement — as the official meeting of the Knox County Growth Policy Coordinating Committee for the second reading of the plan — but downgraded to a public comment session!
A repeat of the same mistake made with the October meeting, which also was not publicly announced in a newspaper with the minimum 15 days due notice required by state law! Thus, that meeting was held as a “forum for public comments” only.

Knoxville — The Knox County Growth Policy Coordinating Committee (GPCC) will meet on Tuesday, December 19, 2023, at 5:00 p.m. in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building, 400 Main Street.

The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the proposed amendment to the Growth Policy Plan and hear from members of the public.

Note: Anyone who wishes to sign up to speak, can do so by calling 865-215-2005 by Tuesday, December 19 at 12:00 p.m.

Advance Knox was promoted as a public-participation effort to come up with a 20-year plan for growth in Knox County

Hellbender Press reported regularly on Advance Knox progress. In the end, there remained little public enthusiasm for the plan that resulted after two years.

At the “public information” meeting on Oct. 24 and at the first official GPCC meeting Nov. 27, the vast majority of attending citizens were upset by the Knox County Proposed Future Land Use Map. It showed that 17.5 square miles of land would be moved from ‘Rural’ to ‘Planned Growth.’ It appeared that little, if any consideration has been given to best agricultural soils.

Last modified on Saturday, 23 March 2024 21:42
Sunday, 10 December 2023 08:30

EarthSolidarity! quest announced

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Dec. 10, 2023 — Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ 75th anniversary

EarthSolidarity!™ is a grassroots appeal by the Foundation for Global Sustainability. It challenges everyone to become active, or even more engaged, in humanity’s exigency to stem the demise of our planet’s life-support systems. The gist of it is summarized in two sentences:

Ask not what Mother Earth can do for you.

Ask what you and those next to you can do to keep our planet inhabitable.


That meme addresses the global polycrisis — with a hat tip to President John F. Kennedy for borrowing the notion from his 1961 inauguration speech. (Then the Cold War was approaching the boiling point of the Cuban missile crisis. And incidentally, human rights had improved little yet for the majority of the world’s population.)

The global polycrisis is brought about by the pernicious entanglement of many systems that keep civilization ticking. Relatively small disturbances in one system may reverberate through other systems. When necessary corrections trigger a self re-enforcing feed-back loop, previously unimagined break downs that affect multiple systems can happen. Recent examples are the disruptions of world supply chains by the COVID-19 pandemic; then again by a single ship stranded in the Suez Canal.

Cascade polycrisis systems v2Inter-system categories.  From: ‘What is a Global Polycrisis?’ by the Cascade Institute

Increases in the frequency and severity of calamities, such as catastrophic floods, hurricanes and tornados, extensive droughts, debilitating heat waves, widespread forest fires, or episodes of abominable air quality often result in disruptions of supply chains, diminished availability of critical services, reduced job security and hikes in cost of living expenses. In less developed areas of the world, water or food shortages may lead to armed conflicts and waves of refugees.

CostOfLivingReport Paul BehrensAn example of how climate impacts combine with other shocks to increase cost of living. The baseline shows an average cost without the impact of climate change against two scenarios going forward — current policies and adaptation & mitigation — to indicate the increase in cost of living over time as climate impacts accumulate. As the cost of living increases, the colored dashed lines show the potential for societal tipping points or volatile transitions, from strikes to political instability. (Behrens, P., 2023)

Last modified on Monday, 11 December 2023 23:08

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer GranholmThe Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bob Deacy shows U.S. Department of Energy secretary Jennifer Granholm the site of a future nuclear reactor in Oak Ridge.  Ben Pounds/Tennessee Lookout

DOE chief: Little nuke plants posited to provide clean energy 

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

OAK RIDGE — U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited the site of a possible first-of-its-kind nuclear reactor for the Tennessee Valley Authority this week. 

The utility’s board authorized $200 million to explore building a reactor on the site last year after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave TVA an early site permit in 2019. 

This first-of-its-kind small modular reactor would be smaller than standard nuclear reactors and generate less power, but it could have other advantages. While typical nuclear power plants need to provide power at 100 percent of their capacity constantly, a small modular reactor can more easily increase or decrease the amount of power it provides to the overall grid. Melinda Hunter, TVA nuclear communication specialist explained that this flexibility can complement renewable plants elsewhere in the TVA grid.

“When the sun’s not shining, you can bring the power up,” she said, adding that during sunnier periods the small modular reactors can provide less power.

TVA CEO Jeff Lyash said the utility will likely start building its first reactor on the site in 2027 and finish by the early 2030s. TVA is looking to build four of these reactors on the site, but it’s not made a final decision on the first one yet. Each reactor would generate 300 megawatts. 

Last modified on Friday, 08 December 2023 15:21
Thursday, 07 December 2023 12:15

On tap: Learn how the local Sierra Club is fighting climate change

Harvey BroomeHarvey Broome hiding in a buckeye tree on the way to Hughes Ridge, July 25, 1931.  Albert “Dutch” Roth

KNOXVILLE — The latest round of Conversation on Tap features members of the local Harvey Broome group of the Sierra Club discussing its efforts to address climate change.

It’s set for 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at Albright Brewing Company, 2924 Sutherland Ave. Proceeds from the event will benefit Discover Life in America, a crucial science partner with Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Join Harvey Broome group vice-chairman Jerry Thornton and others to learn more about the local chapter of the Sierra Club and its efforts to address climate change.

Named after a Smokies advocate and Wilderness Society founder, the Harvey Broome chapter of the Sierra Club has been fighting to preserve wild places; create clean, safe communities; and encourage recycling and clean energy since 1972. 

Photograph from the Albert “Dutch” Ross Photograph Collection at the University of Tennessee Libraries

Albert Gordon "Dutch" Roth, born September 20, 1890 in Knoxville, Tennessee, is recognized as one of the most prolific early photographers of the Great Smoky Mountains' Greenbrier and Mount Le Conte sections. An early member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, his photographs document club hikes and activities, including the construction of the clubhouse at Greenbrier.

What began in 1913 as a diversion soon developed into a serious avocation as Roth perfected his penchant for photography while avidly hiking the unexplored regions near his home. He worked primarily with a Kodak Autographic 122 camera, and, often carrying a heavy tripod, would climb twenty to thirty feet up a tree or venture hundreds of yards off the trail to capture the landscape images for which he was later noted.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 December 2023 00:49
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