Monday, January 24, 2011

You Too Can Make a Difference

Did you know that the American industrial complex regards the mountains of eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia as just an inconvenience, a nuisance? We've all heard about mountain-top removal, and most of us have seen the moonscape photos of the land after its rape.
It's not only the coal companies who have that attitude. Last year we Frosts visited Logan in the center of the moonscape. We found that Walmart had calmly removed a mountain and filled in a valley for a new store. If anyone downwind from the site had raised any objection, we certainly had not heard about it. Why should a tyrannosaurus rex bother about a ladybug, anyway? Just squash it and get on with things.
The arrogant raping of the mountains is poignantly illustrated most recently by the attitude and activities of Arch Coal Company. Arch gained a permit form the Corps of Engineers to take over 2,000 acres of mountain top (what they call the overburden) and dump it into several handy streams. Various groups in West Virginia, notably the Highlands Conservancy, had been protesting such action since their formation in 1965. In more than 50 cases the EPA had negotiated with coal companies to ameliorate the damage that they were causing; but this time the coal company (again arrogantly) refused to change their plans by so much as a comma. The EPA finally got enough cojones to cancel the permit.
This was to be the largest mountain-top removal mine ever permitted, involving as it did the burial of miles of high-quality stream under a minimum of 110 million cubic yards of waste. The waste would have poisoned not only the remaining water downstream; the poison would have gone all the way down to the Mississippi River and eventually out into the Gulf, resulting in large areas where no fish swim and no birds sing. It's enough waste to bury downtown Washington thirty feet deep--There's an idea.
Once in a genuinely Zen moment, late on a sunny morning, we had the privilege of watching a mother pelican floating maybe ten feet out from a pleasure beach. The hatchling that sat on her back frequently hopped off under her prompting to dive and catch some version of a mini-fish just below the surface. As we watched, she coached it several times through the skills it was developing to support itself as it matured into autonomy. We wished them both well: simple creatures of Nature, doing what they were designed to do, harming nobody but three or four of the millions of fish in the school.
The coal companies are already protesting (quelle surprise!) to this effect: "You will lose 250 jobs!" Yeah, and how many lives will we save? Charleston on the water downstream is already popularly known as Cancer Gulch.
Coal companies have such little regard for human life that they are the highest eradicator of it in the mining industries. They have such a clamp on governmental agencies that they routinely ignore mine safety regulations, resulting in such catastrophes as the one of Massey's last April at Upper Big Branch. Eventually that one meant 29 fatalities. Each of the individuals lost had an extended family, had responsibilities, had lives that would have gone on. The official death toll was 29; but the loss and grief extended far, far beyond that stark number, and will not diminish for decades.
Arch Coal claimed that West Virginia will forgo $250 million in investment. Of course the industrialists will weep into their champagne about the billions of dollars in profits that they stand to lose from the sale of the coal--which at the present time is at its highest price in history. Of course little or nothing of these profits will flow to West Virginians except perhaps as political bribes.
The companies will also weep into the laps of the congressmen whom they've bought fair and square. The companies will foot the bill for government/congressional/agency employee tours to far-away places (maybe Australia in Australia's summer which is our winter) "to see how coal mines work there"--and by the way, just peripherally influencing the outcome of this vote or that. It's all insultingly transparent. This is what our tax dollars are paying for.
Just now, we taxpayers have in Congress two opposing factions. One faction wants to castrate the EPA and take away its veto powers; another wants to stop mountain-top removal. The EPA has clearly shown that mining companies willing to work with the agency can redesign their operations to make them more sustainable, and can eliminate most of the impact on streams--while at the same time they increase production.
The fight is not over yet, and we should remember such people as the late Judy Bonds, whose voice has now been stilled. And we should gratefully congratulate the Highlands Conservancy and thank them in the way most of us know best: send them a (tax-deductible) donation: An e-mail of thanks should also go to the EPA: It won't take you a moment, but it will add to their file of interested protesters for the future battle in the courts and in Congress.
You can make a difference. This arrogance has got to stop. It was bad enough when James Watt, once Secretary of the Interior, said, "Don't worry about global warming. The second coming is at hand."
By the way--this is kind of a PS--burning raw coal causes vast areas of pollution, causes mercury poisoning with its accompanying birth defects, and causes acid rain. That's old news. But coal producers have known since the 1700s how to prevent these problems. It's called coking: heating coal in closed containers, tapping off the fumes, turning them into various chemical products--useful products--and using the clean-burning by-product--the coke--as fuel. Additionally we know how to capture the flue gases from a coal-burning generator, pipe them back through the flame, and reburn them, making the furnace more efficient and removing the pollutants. We can even burn the coal underground if we really have to, and leave the mountains essentially alone.
Wake up, people out there. You know how to do it.
We wrote this blog after listening to the rant of one knowledgable person. Thank you, Marilyn.

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