Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Lies of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

As someone who grew up in the heart of coal territory in southern West Virginia as well as a conservationist, the practice of "mountaintop removal" mining is something that both terrifies and enrages me.  Even though I no longer live in the middle of the coal "fields," I feel an almost personal connection to the land, and to me, the images on television are more than just another news story.

A recent Washington Post ran an article on a scientific study of the abhorrent practice of mountaintop removal mining, and not surprisingly, the study found that the environmental toll of something the Bush administration wholeheartedly embraced (with, if I recall correctly, one official going so far as to say was doing a "favor" for the people of WV) is so terrible that, in the words of one of the scientists, the only conclusion that one can reach is that "[it] needs to be stopped" and that contrary to the statements of coal companies and even some within the EPA, there is simply no such thing as "good" mountaintop removal mining.

You see, we've exhausted the easily-accessed coal seams (that alone should give some of the "spend our resources like a trip to the mall using daddy's credit card" crowd some pause), leaving thin layers of coal to be harvested by literally blasting away entire mountain peaks.  Of course, all the rubble that's left over gets bulldozed right into the valleys between the now-disintegrated mountaintops, turning the rolling hills of Appalachia into a vast man-made parking lot.

I'm not going to debate for the moment whether or not the pristine beauty of unblemished mountains and forests--the Mountain State's one truly renewable and enduring gift--is, as a "lifestyle," better than a land of franchise ghettos, strip malls, and cookie-cutter housing subdevelopments in the land of convenience; that's for another post.  What I want to look at is the arguments which proponents of mountaintop removal--a group unfailingly and almost uniformly populated by mine company executives, owners, and neoconservative politicians and pundits--fall back on, all of which are as convincing and credible as a lead balloon:
  • "Jobs": The jobs argument is multifaceted and has its roots deep in the history of what today is a rather economically blighted region.  Basically, it goes like this: mess with mining, and you put all those poor people in West Virginia out of work.  And "union jobs?"  That coal companies care about union miners so much as to make a point of so-characterizing the jobs created and/or saved is laughably ironic.  History alone belies this one.  Ever hear of "bloody Mingo?"  See the film Matewan (yes, a polemic, to be sure, but give it a watch sometime...).  The whole "union jobs" bit is a pathetic attempt to get the left-leaning labor organizations--the local chapters of the UMWA, for the most part--to endorse setting fire to the house because it's cold outside.
  • The Damage Is "Short Term": Chris Hamilton of the WV Coal Association (which sounds to me to be an organization along the lines of the US Chamber of Commerce or the Western Fuels Association--e.g. a "union" for big businesses and certainly not an advocacy group with the public's best interest at heart) claims that the damage done is "usually" "short term."  Right, it's okay to rape the environment and wipe out ecosystems and millions-of-years-old topography because in a few years, some grass might grow back.  This particular statement is so ridiculously false that Hamilton and others like him should blush for even having thought to say it.

    I recall seeing a "reclaimed" strip mining site in Wyoming County years ago. A decade later, and it was still basically some sickly grass and a few scrubby bushes, almost monotypic in floral ecology. And that site sat on the banks of the Gyandotte River; I hate to think of what leached through it with every rain and ran straight into the taps of communities like Pineville. This is only an anecdotal statement, yes--but it is an anecdote borne out time and time again by studies and observations. It's not like streams which are filled in and covered up magically come back, and the toxic leachates don't stop simply because there's a bit of dirt poured atop the rubble and grass planted on it.
  • Mountaintop Removal Creates Useful Land: Because, you know, those scenic hills and valleys are worthless compared to the parking lots, Wal-Marts, and shopping malls that could be built atop the artificial mesas that mountaintop removal mining creates.  It takes some real cojones to suggest with a straight face that the mining companies are actually doing residents a favor by tearing away their mountains and giving them flat stretches of dirt piled atop toxic-leaching rubble.  But then, isn't that what was said of Love Canal before it became the definitive Superfund site?

    Don't forget, either, that places like West Virginia have low populations and low population densities for all the dearth of "useful" land. In the eighteen years I spent as a resident of WV, I don't recall ever hearing a person or business complain for lack of land--just how many more cookie-cutter strip malls does a state of well under two million people need?

  • Opponents are "activists": The proponents of mountaintop removal play the good old Republican trick of denigrating and demonizing their opponents with the slur of "activism," much as you hear the neocons lobbing the term "liberal" about as if they're the new Joe McCarthy out to ferret out every imagined communist lurking behind every tree and beneath every rock.  See, if you stand for a cause, you're an "activist," probably someone like a member of the Weathermen and with a trunk full of Molotov cocktails--unless your cause is making so much money you can buy your own WV Supreme Court justice (sadly, this is more than just a plot for a John Grisham book, by the way).  Then you're just a businessman and a capitalist.

    The whole notion that scientists publishing a peer-reviewed study are "activists" sounds good from a populist appeal perspective, I suppose, but it reflects a deliberate naivety of the entire scientific process on par with creationism.

Yet we continue to see mountaintop removal touted, even from politicians who should really know better.  And what I really fear is that the citizens of the Mountain State are buying it, hook, line, and sinker, this toxic pig in a poke gift-wrapped in paper printed with leaded inks and filled with cheap imported goods from China.  Even with arguments as flimsy and transparent as the ones outlined above, people see what they want to, and if they're buying the used-car salesmen promises from the coal industry barons and their paid shill marketing campaigns, I fear for the future of my once-beautiful home state.

It's just not worth it.  We can find a better way, a way which doesn't destroy the mountains which define West Virginia and which wipe out the ecologies of streams and rivers which filter through the valleys nestled between every ridge of those rolling mountains.  We can find a way which doesn't take away the jobs of the hard-working citizens of that state--jobs which have dwindled mightily over the years, leaching away the peoples of once-booming communities as less and less labor is needed to do the work of giant, hulking machines.  But we cannot hide behind the lies of the practitioners of this environmental rape, the bogeymen spectres of economic ruin now when so surely we face economic and ecological ruin later, running up an overdraft one day inescapably due the piper.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter's Toll, Part 1: Car Damage

As we continue to dig out from and clean up after the record-setting snowfall in northern Virginia, we're starting to uncover the damage done by the storm.  It's too early to say how our plants will come out; one of the blueberry bushes is still completely buried, as are several of our holly bushes, though at least two are toast, completely demolished by the weight of the snow.  More on that later, and with pictures (I promise!).

But first, I'm a bit annoyed at the amount of damage done to my car by this weather.  I'm not talking just about the corrosion from road salt; that's an issue, to be sure, but a minor one compared to a few other problems wrought by the snow.

First, I've got some sort of exhaust leak; my guess is incredibly bumpy roads--rutted sheets of solid ice, mostly--knocked something loose somewhere between the exhaust manifold and the catalytic converter.  (Because the upstream and downstream oxygen sensors read normally, I don't think the leak is after the converter.)  Also, those jarring, potholed, ice-sheet-rutted roads have done a number on my shocks and suspension, too; my car used to ride very smoothly, but now you feel every single bump in the road.  I'm not going to contemplate what's been done to my alignment; I'm afraid I'd go on an undeserved rant about VDOT and mail them a bill.

Next, because of some idiot the other day who refused to pull even remotely to the side of the road--and forced me to plow into a snowbank to avoid a head-on collision--there's a big panel that runs inside one wheel well which is completely wrecked.  Best I can figure, going up on that snow mound snapped the plastic panel along its front edge--luckily, the body panels around it seem fine.  But that plastic panel has been rubbing against something and getting hot enough to melt in places (that's how I discovered the damage to begin with: the day after said idiot ran me off the road, I smelled burning plastic after a drive).

At least the sound I thought was a possible wheel bearing issue has gone away in wake of the weather.  Some Forester experts suggested it was actually the backing plate for the disc brake causing the sound, due to uneven rust.  I guess all this bouncing around knocked the rust free.

Next up: a look at our poor plants.  We put backbreaking effort into our landscaping last year, and I'm afraid of what I'll see as the still-more-than-18-inches of snow melts away.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Rules for the Road: Stay Inside or DIE

You know how the anchors--particularly on local news--yammer on and on any time the weather turns bad about things like, "Stay home unless you absolutely have to be out," and, "It's very dangerous to be driving, so please stay off the roads unless it's a matter of life and death?"

Yes, I know such talk quickly grows tiresome; the local reporters here even realized it, several times prefacing the standard warning fare with, "I know people are tired of hearing this, but..."

However, after what I witnessed today, I don't think the message is strong enough.  No, I've got a new suggestion for the media yammerheads to share with the snowbound public who are considering exiting their homes and taking a leisurely stroll or drive: "Do not drive. Do not walk in the road. Stay inside or you will DIE."

I won't get into the whole story now, other than to say that what even in the snow should have been a 15 minute drive at most took well over an hour, and all of it due to idiots who really shouldn't be out, either on foot or atop a set of tires.  I will, however, offer the following suggested rules for those who would dare to venture out and challenge the roads:
  1. If you are a pedestrian, walk on the left side of the road, and keep your eyes out and ears open for cars.  When you notice a car coming, get out of the middle of the road, particularly if it's a plow coming toward you.  If it comes to a fight over the road with a car, I guarantee you the pedestrian will lose.  And if I have to choose between wrecking my car and wrecking you, I know which I will choose (hint: it's not my car).
  2. If you are a pedestrian, do not stop passing cars to chat.  Holding a conversation in the middle of the street might be considered "quaint" in the netherlands of Norman Rockwell postcards and Dueling Banjos, but when you see eight cars backed up in each direction because you seem unaware of this space-age gadget known as the telephone and its place in communications history, maybe you should get with the program.
  3. If you're in a car driving down a street plowed only one lane wide, the considerate thing to do when you see oncoming traffic is to look for the widest spot and pull as far to the side as you can.  Not to barrel at full-speed forward and expect the other driver to put his or her car into reverse, or worse, expect the other driver to plow into a snowbank to avoid a head-on collision with you just so you can drive down the middle of the road, three feet away from the plowed shoulder.  I have as much the right to the road as you.
  4. If you do not feel up to driving faster than your grandmother or feel that you have to ignore all concept of separate traffic lanes, perhaps that is a clue that you should stay home.  This rule applies double on roads which have been well-plowed and in which dry (or even wet) blacktop is showing through, and treble for those who are driving in the left lane.  Your snail's pace is more a danger to your life than the snow and ice on the roads.
  5. On the other hand, just because you have a SUV does not entitle you to drive 55 mph.  Think of how silly you'll feel when you have to have that big four wheel drive minibus pulled out of a snow bank by a tow truck, as people cruise by at 35 in their little sedans and snicker.
  6. Stop signs DO mean you.  There is no waiver in effect for traffic signals and signs simply because the roads are slick--better to stop slowly and short of the intersection than to T-bone someone who was obeying the rules.
  7. Be patient and polite, even with all the idiots out and about (this is the hardest rule for me to personally follow, but I do my best).
Just doing my part for public safety!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Scenes from Snowpocalyse Now Redux

The December blizzard we experienced in the Washington, D.C., area should have been a once-in-a-generation event, yet here we are again in the same winter season with two feet or more of abominable whiteness on the ground.

Yes, it's only the first week of February, and we in northern Virginia are challenging a record more than a century old for total snow.  One part of me wants to see the rest of the winter break that record (set in 1898-99) and be a part of history.  The other part--probably the saner bit--thinks it's time for Old Man Winter to receive a visit from Dr. Kevorkian.

The doggies do love a good snowstorm, and Beth diligently dug them trenches all over the yard (doubling as access for us to refill the bird feeders and for me to knock snow off the tree limbs).  Even with those trenches, the pupsters managed to become little snowballs in short time, their long fur collecting bibs of ice and snow.

Unfortunately, Beth pulled a muscle in her shoulder doing all that shoveling, and I think we've a few plants which won't make it even despite all the work I put into dislodging the thick, heavy snow before it could do much damage.  Our beautiful American Holly in the front bed, for example, already was looking a bit peaked--likely due to root freeze after a lengthy cold snap struck ground soaked through with the melt of our last few snowstorms.  Now, it's broken in half by the weight of the snow.  I hesitate to guess what has happened to our other evergreen shrubs and young trees, all of which are currently visible as only slight mounds in the snow.  Somehow, our River Birch seems okay after a third time of having to be rescued from being bent in half by the weight of ice and snow.

Fortunately, we kept power through the storm and its aftermath.  Back in December, I thought to myself that things like a snow blower, tire chains, and a generator would be nice to have on hand, but the infrequency of storms necessitating their use really made them poor investments.  I'm sticking to that thought.  How many more snows can we get like this?

At least this time around, we got plows through our neighborhood, including down our cul-de-sac.  Thanks to the plows, I only had to shovel out the driveway, and of course the 5-foot-tall wall of plowed, packed snow at the end of it.  Needless to say, after that task, I wonder why I pay gym dues.

A beach home in the Bahamas is looking awfully good right now.