Thursday, May 14, 2009

Appalachia and coal

Interestingly enough, I got only one homophobic comment related to same sex marriage, and two related to a Marketwatch article I posted denouncing the concept of clean coal (basically, there can be no such thing). One of the commenters said that I did not know what coal did for the economy of the Appalachian region, which is a mountainous, sparsely populated and poor region of the U.S. in the states of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

I am against coal, but I realize and have stated repeatedly that the U.S., China and India will need to continue to use coal as part of their energy generation mix. Green technologies will not be able to replace the bulk of energy capacity in the near future.

I agree that mining is a necessary way to get the natural resources that our society needs. I also acknowledge that it provides jobs to poor regions globally.

However, mining companies are phenomenally destructive. People around the globe pay the price from environmental degradation. The environment also pays the price; I don't follow the typical White Westerner model of environmentalism, but it's self-evident that the environment has intrinsic worth that must be balanced against any economic benefits that damaging it provides.

And that's not to mention that mining is physically very dangerous. Miners are at risk of mine collapses and very painful chronic diseases. In the U.S., the mining industry is one of the least likely industries to provide health insurance - I know this because I sifted through some health insurance data by industry collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Neither miners nor their communities are adequately compensated for the damage that mining does. The mining industry has a record on remediation of environmental damages that ranges from poor to abysmal.

Readers should note that I do not post offensive comments. If you don't like it, that's too bad. The only reason I even responded to this idiot is because he's (presumably) a member of a vulnerable community.

I'm going to link to an article on Sojourners by Danny Duncan Collum - and this guy comes from Kentucky.

By now everyone knows that in the face of global climate change, the United States must do at least two big things. We have to stop burning gasoline for our personal transportation, and we have to stop burning coal to make our electricity. A change in the way Americans move from place to place will affect almost all of us. But leaving coal behind may not, unless we live in Central Appalachia.

In the place where West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee converge, coal has been king since the late 1800s. And an entire way of life is built upon a love-hate relationship with the black, smoky stuff. Coal has brought Appalachian people the only meager glimpses of prosperity they’ve seen. But coal mining has also taken many lives—through accidents and through the slow death of black lung. Now the coal industry is taking away the landscape that formed the Appala­chian people and their culture. Increasing­ly, coal operators simply blow the tops off the mountains to scoop out the coal, leaving lifeless plateaus behind and burying more than 4,000 miles of streams under the rubble and waste.

Country singer Kathy Mattea, a West Virginian, expresses much of this story on her most recent album, Coal, a collection of classic mining songs. You can read about the rest in a new book, Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Moun­taintop Removal, from the University Press of Kentucky, edited by novelist Silas House and journalist Jason Howard.

Coal was the fuel for the first wave of the industrial revolution, and to secure their supply, robber barons swept through Appalachia buying up mineral rights. The rights came cheap because most Appalachians were still subsistence farmers, and any amount of cash looked like a windfall. Ever since those days, Appalachia has been hostage to the energy market. When coal prices go down, mines close and jobs disappear. When the price is up, life gets a little better. In her opening track, “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” Kathy Mattea sings of these cycles. The community is quieter and cleaner when the mine is closed, but the people have no money to take to town.

For decades in the coal business, the profit margin could literally be measured in human lives. It is possible to mine coal from underground in relative safety. But it is a lot cheaper to cut corners and gamble with miners’ lives. The most recent coal boom has been largely at nonunion mines, and a series of deadly disasters—from Sago, West Vir­ginia, to Crandall Canyon, Utah—shows what happens when the owners have all the power. On Coal, we hear of exploitation in “Blue Diamond Mines,” of mine disasters in “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” and of the price paid by those who stood up to the companies in “Lawrence Jones,” which tells the tale of a man gunned down during the strike depicted in the film Harlan County, U.S.A. Mattea’s version of the Merle Travis classic, “Dark as a Dungeon,” captures the strange attraction many miners feel for the underground life: “Like a fiend with his dope, or a drunkard his wine, a man will have lust for the lure of the mines.”

While fatal accidents also occur in mountaintop removal mining, nature and the people who live downhill are paying the heaviest price. Even as the smoke from coal-fired utility plants heats the environment and raises sea levels, the process of scraping coal from the earth has already destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of the oldest and most biodiverse forest in North America.

In Something’s Rising, we read about children playing on creek bottoms coated with carcinogens and in streams full of dead fish. But we also hear about ordinary Appalachian people overcoming fear and fatalism to stand up for their homes and for God’s creation, founding organizations with names such as Christians for the Mountains and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

One of the most hopeful voices in Something’s Rising is that of Nathan Hall, a young Kentuckian who left underground mining to study business at Berea College with the goal of establishing a biofuel business in the mountains. As the book demonstrates, more and more Appalachians realize that the future of the mountains, and the planet, depends on finding a way for Appalachians to live without King Coal.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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