Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Mountaintop Removal

The greatest unknown environmental disaster in the United States is the widespread practice in Appalachia of mountaintop removal for coal mining. For those not in the know, it is just what it sounds like. Coal companies used to hire hundreds of workers to mine into the mountain and remove the coal. Today they use around 10 workers to go up to a mountain, blast the top off of it, extract the coal, and dump the former mountaintop into the valleys below. This has become endemic over the past few years because of a) the Bush administration's close relationship with coal companies, and b) when the price of oil rises, coal goes up too so this is a boom time.

I highly recommend Erik Reece's article in the April issue of Harper's, "Death of a Mountain". Over the course of a year he makes repeated visits to Lost Mountain in eastern Kentucky to chronicle the destruction of a mountain to mountaintop removal. It is a sad and disturbing story. Mountaintop removal destroys the forests around the mountains, kills off habitat, poisons watersources below, cracks the foundations of nearby houses, makes land unlivable, and creates untold amounts of pollution. This is far from an uncommon phenomenon as well--tens of thousands of acres in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee have been forever changed by the coal companies.

What do we get for the permanent scarring of land? Fossil fuels. But not only fossil fuels--obsolete fossil fuels. Coal is the dirtiest of fuels to burn. We don't use it like we used to. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, coal caused incredible levels of air pollution in Europe and the United States that killed many people and sickened hundreds of thousands. Not such a problem today here. But it is used for power plants. It is also exported in huge amounts to China, causing insane levels of pollution there.

The coal industry wants to expand its use back into homes and make it our #1 energy source. Remember the Clean Coal TV ads of a few years ago? They claim it is clean because of filters and other technologies that reduce the air pollution of burning coal. What they don't mention, and what the public doesn't care much about, is the production of coal. Like all natural resources, coal comes from somewhere. An obvious statement, but one that most people don't spend a second of their lives thinking about, whether it's coal, wood, or beef. The price of burning coal is the destruction of an entire region of the United States and the impoverishment of our richest and most diverse forests. I'm not a economist or political scientist, so I don't know much about cost-benefit analysis. But in general terms the cost is much greater than the benefit. With the investment that the government and the coal companies make in coal, we could easily replace that energy with wind and solar. For me at least, the benefit of cheaper energy is not worth the hideous price, especially when that benefit is so replaceable.

Don't get me wrong. It's not as if many, many residents of these states don't support the coal companies. People are scared to lose their jobs. Many see little value to the mountains if they can't mine them. And, like residents of many places where extractive industries have come and gone, they hold on to the belief that if they get these environmentalists and the government off their back, all the jobs will come back. Of course this won't happen. Environmental regulations are completely unenforced in Appalachia today and the government is in the pockets of the coal companies. The favorite politician of the coal companies is Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. His wife, Elaine Chao, is Bush's Secretary of Labor. According to Reece, 89% of coal company political donations over the last 4 years have gone to Republicans. And the other 11% have probably gone to Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic Senators from West Virginia. But regardless of this, the jobs will never come back because of technology. It takes a mere fraction, maybe 1% or less of the people it used to take to mine coal to do it today. Many residents of Appalachia feel that the coal companies are on their side, much as the loggers of Oregon feel that way about Weyerhaeuser and Georgia Pacific. But of course it's not true. The companies are on the side of profit and they will push for that without regard to the fate of their employees or ex-employees. Those jobs aren't coming back. Ever.

There is another economic argument for mountaintop removal. I once saw a paper for Lincoln County, West Virginia. The main story was about the glories of mountaintop removal and how what West Virginia to revitalize its economy was flat, developable land. Of course this is a pipe dream. Who is going to invest on a polluted former mountaintop in rural West Virginia? No one. In a global economy there are a lot more attractive places to invest than that. But these dreams still exist. A region that has sucked the tit of an extractive economy for over a century finds it extraordinarily difficult to wean itself from it. It's the same in the mines of Montana and the forests of Oregon. The dream of a return to a job-rich extractive economy is a delusion.

Finally, why has this issue gotten so little press coverage? For instance, in 2000 a coal slurry improvement pond broke through an underground mine shaft in Inez, Kentucky. More than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge poured into the headwaters of Coldwater and Wolf Creek. Amazingly, no one died though many people lost their property and countless animals were killed. Coverage from the New York Times--None. Size of the spill compared to the Exxon Valdez--30 times larger. Compare this to the Amazon rainforest. Environmentalist and environmental organizations view the destruction of tropical rainforests as a huge environmental catastrophe. And it is. But these same people and organizations don't give a damn about Appalachia. Why? Prejudice, I believe. The sheer amount of ignorance, prejudice, and condescension toward these areas of America is amazing. I have talked to scores of people who would refuse to live there under any circumstances, even though they've never been there. These are often the same liberals who give money to the poor of other nations. But then again, the poor of West Virginia aren't nearly as romantic as those of Guatemala or Cambodia. Appalachia is seen as a lost, backward region of America who votes Republican and filled with moonshiners and married cousins. Yet this is our most biologically diverse region and the first step toward fighting against the permanent erasure of thousands of its mountains and valleys is accepting the region as an equal part of America and making alliances with the residents of the region to protect them and their lands from the insatiable appetite of the coal companies.