The Skywriter

Salon's must-read on Coal River Mountain


Salon's must-read on Coal River Mountain

We've been following in this blog for awhile the ongoing struggle by activists and citizens to stop the destruction of Coal River Mountain via mountaintop removal (MTR). In that spirit, let me point you to a must-read article on Salon. The article is mainly a well-deserved profile of activist Rory McIlmoil, co-founder of Coal River Wind and a tireless advocate for wind energy as an alternative to coal. But it also serves to highlight the "madness" (in James Hansen's words) of the whole concept of mountaintop removal. Just how mad would blowing up Coal River Mountain to harvest coal be?

In December, West Virginians saw what happened at a Tennessee power plant. A restraining wall burst and a billion gallons of coal ash poured out of a pond and deluged 400 acres of land in 6 feet of sludge. The proposed mountaintop removal site on Coal River Mountain rested beside a 6 billion-gallon toxic coal waste sludge dam above underground mines. If the proposed blasting took place, a fracture along the sludge lake could be catastrophic for the communities downstream.

The residents asked: Why should Coal River Mountain be the last mountain to die for a mistake?

Why indeed--especially given the alternatives. Coal River Wind released a study last month comparing the economic benefits of a wind farm vs. mountaintop removal on Coal River Mountain. From the press release:

The study shows that the proposed wind farm, consisting of 164 wind turbines and generating 328 megawatts of electricity, would provide over $1.74 million in annual property taxes to Raleigh County. By comparison, the coal severance taxes related to the mountaintop removal mining would provide the county with only $36,000 per year.

That's a pretty wide tax gap. It's also worth mentioning that wind farms don't carry the health hazards for communities that coal mining (particularly MTR) does:

According to Hendryx, the data show that people in coal mining communities
  • have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease.
  • have a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as emphysema.
  • are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure (hypertension).

"We’ve considered that chronic illness might be prevalent in these areas because rural West Virginians have less access to health care, higher smoking rates and poorer economic conditions," Hendryx said. "We’ve adjusted our data to include those factors, and still found disease rates higher in coal-mining communities."  Science Daily and Charleston Gazette

People living in the vicinity of mountaintop removal operations are exposed to a host of assaults on their health.  As mountains are blasted, “fly rock” fires off the mountaintops and lands on private property.  In 2005, a 3-year-old boy in Virginia was killed by a loosened boulder that rolled down the mountainside, through his wall, and crushed him to death. 

There's a particular urgency to saving Coal River Mountain that isn't usually there for other communities choosing between alternative economic development models. It's not as if the residents of Coal River can choose MTR, try it for a few years, realize it has produced little economic development, then choose to build a wind farm instead. The potential for the wind farm proposed by Coal River Wind depends on the existence of the mountain. If MTR is carried out, the mountain is gone -- and as Coal River Wind's co-director Lorelei Scarbro says, "once the mountain is removed, it won't grow back." No mountain, no wind farm.

This "madness," as Hansen calls it, isn't limited to MTR. Our whole reliance on coal simply doesn't make sense anymore. If we were building our economy today from scratch, with the whole range of energy alternatives before us, would we choose to power our homes and businesses with a fuel that has this many downsides?

So I leave you with a few action items:

Even if some in Washington haven't received the memo, coal's time has come and gone. It's time to re-power America using clean, renewable energy. A wind farm in Coal River Mountain would be a great start--but we need to save the mountain first.

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