Next week, hundreds of environmental journalists will visit the Roanoke and New River valleys as they meet to discuss and learn more about issues related to energy (particularly coal), climate, water, the land, and environmental health.

Virginia Tech is the university host for the 2008 annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), which will be held at Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center and on the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus, Oct. 15-19.

More than 600 working journalists, government officials, industry leaders, business executives, and non-profit administrators are expected to attend, with some coming as far from Thailand, Belgium, Peru, Australia, Puerto Rico, and Canada. More than 100 sessions and regional tours are planned during the five-day conference.

“Each year, SEJ, in partnership with a major research university, holds its annual conference for the purpose of broadening the knowledge base of environmental reporters and improving their reporting skills,” said Mike Kelly, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and conference co-chair.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine will open the conference Wednesday evening, Oct. 15, with Virginia Tech President Charles Steger and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. The adult grandchildren of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, Philippe and Alexander Cousteau who carry on his work, will present environmental writing awards. Grammy Award-winning country music singer Kathy Mattea will be on hand to sing some of her coal mining songs.

Tours on Thursday, Oct. 16 will take participants to areas across the region, including Kayford, W.V., coal mines; the Jefferson National Forest; Shenandoah Valley farms; the Blue Ridge Parkway; the James and New rivers; the Appalachian Trail; Areva nuclear energy company in Lynchburg, Va., and the Chatham, Va., uranium site.

National exhibitors open their booths Thursday evening with receptions and a wide spectrum of demonstrations, including one by Virginia’s Game and Inland Fisheries on their mussel recovery work.

On Friday, Oct. 17, Rep. Rick Boucher will speak on energy and climate legislation before the opening plenary session on “Old King Coal and His Role in America’s Energy Future,” a panel discussion by speakers from diverse backgrounds, including Nick Akins, executive vice president for generation at American Electric Power, and Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal.

Some conferees will have an opportunity to fly over surface mines to view what mountaintop removal of coal looks like.

The conference keynote speaker is Rajenda K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year with Al Gore. Peter Dykstra, executive producer of CNN’s Science, Technology, Environment, and Weather, will moderate that session on Friday afternoon.

Saturday morning’s plenary session includes Robert Bullard, father of the environmental justice movement. Washington Post writer David Fahrenthold will moderate a clean air panel that includes Pamela Faggert, chief environmental officer of Dominion Power; Bruce Niles, director of Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign; and John Randolph, Virginia Tech professor of environmental planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

This session leads up to the afternoon plenary by officials speaking on the election and the environment: Elgie Holstein (invited), senior energy adviser to Sen. Barack Obama; David Jenkins, government affairs director for Republicans for Environmental Protection; and Congressman Nick Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Tours of Virginia Tech’s environmental centers and the Roanoke Valley’s green projects finish off the day, which later ends with a mountain music barbecue at the Transportation Museum of Virginia. Sunday is authors’ day featuring Wendell Berry, known for years not just for his poignant books but his sharp thinking. He will be joined by a host of other authors, including Ann pancake, author of Strange As This Weather has Been. As the conference ends, a smaller group of journalists will head for a four-day, post-conference tour of the Chesapeake Bay.

Virginia Tech’s hosting partners that helped make the conference possible include lead partners American Electric Power, Dominion Power, and the state’s natural resources agencies under Virginia Secretary Preston Bryant; City of Roanoke, City of Salem, Roanoke County, Virginia Forestry Association, Rainwater Management Solutions, Western Virginia Water Authority, Smithfield Foods, Breakell Inc. General Contractors, Virginia Tech’s Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech’s Center for Organizational and Technological Advancement, Commonweal, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Hotel Floyd, Ukrops, Chipotle, Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, Orvis, and The Roanoker Restaurant.

The Society of Environmental Journalists is a non-profit education organization seeking to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting, with the end result being an informed society through excellence in environmental journalism.

More information can be found at the conference webiste.

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