September 2006

Colleen Mondor


Big Coal, Lost Mountain

When I read the May issue of Vanity Fair (the “green” issue) one of the things that stood out was an article about coal mining in West Virginia. “The Rape of Appalachia” by Michael Shnayerson was all about the political connections between Massey Energy and members of the local, state and federal governments. These connections have apparently allowed all manner of code violations to take place as well as gross misconduct (both morally and legally) when it comes to the health and welfare of people living near the mining operations. The whole piece read as an indictment of the coal industry in general and quite frankly made me more than a bit sick. But still, it was just a magazine article and easy enough to put aside when I was finished. I didn’t think too much about it until I read about Jeff Goodell’s Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future and began to think that maybe this was an issue I should learn more about. Ultimately the book I could not turn away from was Erik Reece’s Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness and its story of one Kentucky mountain that has been obliterated in the pursuit of coal. From Shnayerson to Goodell to Reece, for an odd period last spring, coal seemed to be everywhere I looked.

Quite honestly, there were moments in both of these books where I wished I was still blissfully unaware of the subject.

Reece focuses on the destruction of one mountain (ironically it really is named Lost Mountain) in Perry County. The ridge was targeted for strip mining between September 2003 and 2004. The extracted coal was sold to twenty-two states and countries, all of them distant from the original site. Lost Mountain was thus physically removed for the use of those who never knew it existed, and even more, would never have cause to consider that it was gone.

But that is where Reece comes in -- he wants everyone to know the true price of low cost energy. He wants to dispel the myth that coal is a cheap fuel and expose all the hidden costs of harvesting it. More than anything though Reece came to Lost Mountain for what he calls “an ecological education.” Quoting Aldos Leopold, Reece writes, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Beyond this painful search for environmental truth however, he found himself considering more as he researched his book. “My first impulse was to speak for the land,” he wrote me recently, “the mixed mesophytic forests that are so quickly disappearing in central Appalachia. I love this ecosystem, and we’re losing it at a frightening rate. But the more people I talked to, the more I realized that the health of the land and the people and the destruction of the land and the people, were all one piece.”

The story of Lost Mountain is not just about sacrificing land for energy, it is about sacrificing people in one part of the country for the benefit of those in another. While the environmental impact from strip mining is great, the cultural, economic and social impacts may be even greater. For example, the Tampa Electric Company (TECO) began blasting along ridgetops near the town of McRoberts in 1998. It also replaced vegetation with compacted rubble. “As a result,” writes Reece, “this once forested watershed turned into an enormous funnel. Between the blasting and flooding, the people of McRoberts have almost literally flushed out of the hollow.”

The more people Reece talked to the more stories he heard that shocked and appalled him. “I heard horrible stories from people with little power and no political representation,” he wrote me. “Their houses get buried under mudslides, they are constantly flooded out, the air is so black they can hardly leave their homes, and the blasting on the mine sites shakes their walls and cracks their wells. So I tried to be a conduit for those stories.” The personal stories combine in alternate chapters with his steady documentation of the degradation of Lost Mountain. He walks nearby Robinson Forest (also threatened by mining) with University of Kentucky naturalist Jim Krupa tracking flying squirrels, quotes statistics that will make a reader shudder (“…forest worldwide have shrunk from 12 billion acres at the beginning of the twentieth century to 7 billion acres now; over 2,000 square miles of Appalachian forests will be eliminated over the next decade under current mining regulations. Because of such deforestation, 12 percent of the world’s birds are endangered, as are 24 percent of its mammals and 30 percent of its fish.”), and considers the true cost of extracting coal:

The reality of our modern economy is that we attach no monetary penalty to throughputs, the toxic by-products and environmental damage that result from industrial manufacturing. But because we have settled for a linear, throughput economy where the byproduct of energy is waste, that waste must be taxed. There must be a cost for polluting streams and rivers with mercury and choking them with sediment; there must be a cost for pumping sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the air. Because natural capital such as coal is a limited resource, it must be taxed as such. In other words, market prices must reflect social and environmental costs. To have an economy based solely on the short-term growth of our gross domestic product follows a dangerous and absurd logic -- that we can have infinite growth based on the use of finite resources.

Right there, in the most concise argument based on concepts found in any Econ 101 course, Reece lays bare what he feels is necessary to set things right in the coal mining regions. Just in case you don’t believe the story of Dan Gibson and how he had to sit with a loaded shotgun to prevent Caperton Coal Co. from bulldozing over his nephew’s land in 1965 (while the nephew was away fighting in Vietnam), then maybe the economics of the argument will convince you. It was 1988 before the state of Kentucky added a constitutional amendment stating that coal operators had to have a landowner’s permission before mining on their property. Or maybe you just need to hear what Daymon Morgan, a WWII veteran who is surrounded by destruction has to say to Reece about coal mining:

“‘We’re fighting terrorism right now,’ he began. He wasn’t talking about Islamic militants; he was talking about American strip miners. ‘If people are going to poison you to death, I think we should do whatever is necessary to stop it. The state and federal government won’t do nothing. I don’t want to say take the law into your own hands. That’s a big step. But... I don’t know.’”

Author Jeff Goodell started his journey into the realities of coal mining when the New York Times Magazine sent him to West Virginia in 2001 to write about the industry’s comeback. Prior to that trip he was like many other Americans: “I had literally never seen a lump of coal before that moment,” he wrote me recently, “and had spent most of my adult life thinking -- like most Americans -- that electricity flows down from a golden bowl in the sky. I had no idea where it came from, or what it really costs us. When the NYT sent me to West Virginia to write about the comeback of the coal industry, I was stunned by what I saw. Not just the environmental devastation but also the economic devastation that I saw in the coal mining regions. If coal was the engine of prosperity, as many coal industry people I spoke with kept insisting, why were the regions it is mined so poor, why was the state’s median income among the lowest in the nation, why were so many young people leaving the state in search of a better future elsewhere?”

To find answers to these questions Goodell traveled far beyond the traditional coal states of Kentucky and West Virginia. His research took him not only to the Appalachians but also to strip mining operations in Wyoming, coal-firing power plants in Georgia and the southern region’s hub for electricity in Birmingham, Alabama. He researched political partners and relationships between elected officials and industry that bring into question all notions of legality and considered the impact industrial insiders had on the career of former EPA Chief, Christine Todd Whitman. In a more disturbing moment he introduces Haley Barbour, current governor of Mississippi and former lobbyist for the Southern Company, the source of electrical power for several southern states, as he leveraged industry clout to come down on the White House. In a March 2000 memo quoted in Big Coal, Barbour addressed Vice President Dick Cheney, Energy Secretary Abraham and other Cabinet Members. He did not include Whitman on his mailing list. Barbour wrote:

A moment of truth is arriving. The question is whether environmental policy still prevails over energy policy with Bush-Cheney, as it did with Clinton-Gore. Demurring on the issue of whether the CO2 idea is eco-extremism, we must ask, do environmental initiatives, which would greatly exacerbate the energy problems, trump good energy policy, which the country has lacked for eight years?

Shortly thereafter President Bush dropped a campaign pledge to support restrictions on CO2 emissions and the rhetoric of how a good energy policy must not harm the economy began.

Goodell points out in his book:

Eco-extremism [is] one of those political code words used to refer to a mostly mythical group of people who don’t understand or deny the link between fossil fuel consumption and civilized life and who, more importantly, value the health of the planet more than they value the health and prosperity of human beings. Politically, the term is a winner. By deploying the straw man of eco-extremism, coal advocates are able to cast themselves as humanists -- as people who are in the business of burning coal because it helps the poor and the vulnerable. Thus, if you take a position that impinges in any way on the free and unfettered consumption of coal, you’re an extremist who elevates the birds and the bees above the success of the human race.

Goodell and Reece both went to coal country and they know this argument is not true. The problem is that far too few of us have seen the true face of coal mining like they have -- it is hidden far off the interstate and distant from the areas that the average American family travels through. When Reece visited White Star Cemetery in Dayhoit, Kentucky with Teri Blanton he could not dismiss the evidence. “At the meetings, the people from the EPA would accuse us of being too emotional,” Blanton told him. “Let all your family members and friends die around you and see if you don’t get emotional.”

What Reece found in Dayhoit was the stark realization of just how cold the industry could be (a cold calculation that Goodell’s political research echoes). “I realized,” writes Reece, “the most sinister part of the whole sad story is that it was all done intentionally. A multinational corporation hid in a hollow of one of the poorest counties of one of the poorest states, and knowingly dumped hundreds of deadly chemicals right on the ground. Then, to add insult to irony, a Virginia coal company picked up where it left off, this time flooding out its residents, poisoning their wells and killing their creek.” As Blanton states upon leaving the cemetery and considering the previous 100 years, “We were fueling the whole United States with coal… and yet our pay was lousy, our education was lousy and they destroyed our environment. As long as you have a polluted community, no other industry is going to locate there. Did they keep us uneducated because it was easer to control us then? Did they keep other industries out because then they can keep our wages low? Was it all by design?” Reece doesn’t know the answers, but he knows what it looks like, and so does Jeff Goodell.

In Big Coal Goodell looks at the history of electricity and its dependence on coal, at men fighting for their lives in the Queecreek, Pennsylvania mine collapse in 2002 and at the connections between air pollution and Alzheimer’s disease. If Erik Reece is determined to show the intimate costs of coal then Jeff Goodell is determined to expose the big messy picture (even traveling to China and observing the mining industry there). As he explained to me, “I wanted to try, as best I could, to illuminate what goes on behind the light switch -- to shine my journalistic spotlight on the incredibly complex chain of events that goes into keeping the lights on in America.”

Clearly, Americans need to know what both Goodell and Reece have learned in their research. In my own family survey about coal I had people tell me that electricity came from local power plants that were driven by water (“isn’t that why they are always built near rivers?") or that it was a lucrative industry for uneducated people who have no other option (nothing about how the fewer options are due to the overwhelming pressure of that industry however).

Both authors believe they can make a difference, that the presence of their books (and articles) alone is significant. “We each have to start doing the day-to-day things that will reduce out dependence on coal,” Reece told me, “and we need to push our electricity suppliers to purchase more responsible resources. I honestly believe that if the people of Tampa knew what TECO is doing to the mountains and people of Eastern Kentucky, they would want other sources of energy, and they would buy Energy Star appliances that use far less electricity. The main problem is that many people don’t see the connections -- they don’t see that larger homes in Tampa mean blowing up mountains in Kentucky.”

Goodell echoed this by writing to me, “I’d say most Americans don’t care [about mountaintop removal] because they can’t see it -- it’s out of sight, out of mind. Also, the fact is, this issue HAS been on the radar -- there were massive protests about it back in the 1970s when strip mining got started. In part I blame the media for our complacency about this -- they ignore what is going on in Appalachia or treat the people who live there like hillbillies worthy of a tear-jerker story every six months. And major environmental groups have been shameful on this, hardly bothering to mention it, perhaps because there are few potential green donors in Appalachia. But a lot of it simply has to do with the way our industrial economy runs: we do all we can to keep unpleasant facts at a distance. We don’t want to see what goes into making our food -- when was the last time you had a glimpse inside a slaughterhouse? -- and we don’t want to see what goes into making of our electrons, either.”

Keep us oblivious to everything has been the American message for quite some time now. But just as recent fights over immigration have made us reconsider the meat packing industries, so now has the mounting evidence of global warming forced a hard look at clean energy. According to Goodell, “Energy-wise, the world faces two huge issues, the end of cheap fossil fuels and the coming of global warming. How we deal with these challenges may well determine not just our future economic prosperity, but our fate as a civilization. So change is not an option. To my mind, global warming is a far more urgent and dangerous problem, and will soon drive not only energy policy but all of American politics (and global, for that matter). And in a world that takes global warming seriously, coal is a big loser. There is lots of talk about 'clean coal' plants, etc., but most of that is energy industry propaganda. The future is green, not black.”

In Big Coal Goodell describes the situation at Marsh Fork Elementary School (something that Michael Shnayerson also documented in his Vanity Fair article.) “In one instance, in 1972, the failure of a big slurry dam in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, had sent a twenty-foot-high wall of coal slurry into the hollow below, killing 125 people and leaving 4,000 homeless. Today there are about 135 slurry impoundments in West Virginia, some of them the size of a good-size lake and holding billions of gallons of black water. One of the largest slurry dams in the state, the Brushy Fork impoundment in Raleigh County, is less than a mile above an elementary school. If the dam were to give out, the children wouldn’t have a chance.”

“We as writers and storytellers need to make connections obvious to urban America,” Reece wrote to me. “Now, as the decade of peak oil and peak coal arrives, we need to point a way into a far different future -- one that is sustainable, healthy, smaller in scale and far more attractive than strip malls and strip mines.”

It’s time to grow up in other words, and start taking some responsibility for ourselves. I’m sure the people in coal country would be delighted if their fellow Americans did that. Reece and Goodell have done excellent jobs of showing us why this issue is so important right now; it’s just up to the rest of us to learn from their example and put an end, once and for all, to the myth of cheap energy.