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.

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