Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Burning The Future
It has been such a long, hard fall from radical capitalist, but my ears and eyes are open more often than my mouth lately. There are things that make me angry today that I wouldn't have listened to just a year ago. I am humble.
I listened to another radio program about a documentary film. "Burning the Future" will be on the Sundance Channel later this month. The film "is director David Novack's searing expose about how the coal mining industry in West Virginia has transformed the naturally lush mountain landscape into a wasteland, destroyed the region's fresh water supply and caused widespread health issues for area residents." 
Setting aside Global Warming, I think that we can agree that burning coal is not good for the environment. Or, if you must, not a net positive. See me after the meeting. The U.S. Industry has been cleaning up since the 1960's, we thought [more on that in a moment]. The drab, grey-snowed Dickensian cliche of Soviet Era Eastern Europe or 1950's England got its cheery patina from coal smoke.
The preview I got of the film, and reading their website, made me angry. The two examples I am about to give you, will make you angry. To make it worse, I'm going insist, first, that its your fault. Make no mistake, this is on us. Our insatiable appetite for inexpensive electricity is causing this to happen. From the garish lights of Times Square and Las Vegas, to your local shopping district, to the fools with their houses covered in Christmas lights, to simply that light that is on in the empty room; it is our fault. Here is the trailer for the film:
You've heard of scrubbers probably; the units installed on smokestacks to clean the smoke before it leaves. Or at least you are aware of the latest oxymoron; Green Coal is all the rage. The cousin of Lancelot Link in D.C. even spoke of Green Coal in his State of the Union Address.
What I didn't know was of a process by which coal is "washed" before it is shipped to power plants. Impurities, thus removed, allow for cleaner burning coal. Good, right?!? WRONG!!! This washing process leaves behind a toxic, greasy, black pudding called coal slurry. Much worse than my black mayonnaise. In West Virginia, where coal is king, there are retention ponds, euphemistically called impoundments, filled with this poison. There are billions of gallons, yeah, 'B' billion, of this toxic pudding behind dikes in the mountains there.
These impoundments are not lined. The stuff just sits there leaching into the ground water! Moreover, there have been dike failures, flooded hollers, and deaths already. Why are we hearing about Britney and Lindsay and not this! Google News has 473 related articles about Britney's Custody Costs; 209 about Mountain Top Removal, see below.
The people of Appalachia have always been close to the land. There are still people there who forage wild plants for food and medicinal herbs. Ginseng is a high dollar cash crop. The families of hard working coal men supplimented their income and their diets from the mountains. Now this is not just being taken away, it is being destroyed.
The latest method to extract coal is called Mountain Top Removal. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than the tiresome and expensive digging of coal, the coal companies literally blow off the top of the mountain and scoop the coal out like a cantaloupe. How could someone ever have thought this was a good idea?!?? Rather than by expensive mining equipment, when the dust settles, the coal can be sifted and rounded up using off-the-shelf construction and earth-moving equipment. The industry argues that this practice should be expanded. It's about jobs they say. Yet, coal mining employment is down to less than 10% what it was 20 years ago. New "modern" mining practices use much less labor.
The good people of West Virginia, many of them with current and former family connections to the coal business, have their homes shaken and their dreams, literally, shattered by the massive explosions of Mountain Top Removal. One small boy was killed when an explosion threw a rock through the roof of his room. As much as 750 feet of mountaintop can be lost to one of these operations. Further, the forests and meadows that occupied the mountain top are lost. With nothing left but rock, rain washes off the mountains in torrents. Families that used to get flooded from below when the creek backed up, now get flooded from above too. The chemical residue of the mining operations sweeps down and soaks into lower soil. Homes and land have been swept away. One woman lost about 5 acres. Land that she used to grow vegetables on.
Ironically, I have felt a connection to West Virginia. I spent a weekend there a few months ago and have driven through many times. The hardwood covered Appalachians with ubiquitous rock outcroppings poking through here and there, have a special rugged beauty. The people are wonderfully nice. I rode a City Bus into Charleston from Nitro; at least a half hour ride. I had pleasant conversations in both directions. There is an active music and arts community. Just recently, I mentioned "Mountain Stage" a fabulous PRI radio show, it comes from West Virginia. [Hi, Adam] The thought occurred to me that WV would be a beautiful place to live for a while [after the boat, after the boat, after the boat. . . ] Now, I find it is being poisoned, blown up, and defaced on an almost biblical scale.
John Prine sang of missing Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Literally, missing it because "Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away." In WV, hauled away might even be preferred to stewing in a toxic, black, greasy pudding. There is an elementary school downhill from one of those dikes. Next time, you walk by an empty room with a light burning inside, think of West Virginia and step in there to turn it out. If you can, speak out against this.
Check out John singing "Paradise" with some friends: