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The Boston Globe

Devastation at 3,000 Feet


At hearings last week on the Cape Wind project, some of the witnesses spoke in a mountain twang that had no hint of Yarmouth to it. They hailed from coal-mining country in West Virginia and had come north to plead with New Englanders to find a renewable energy alternative to mountaintop-removal coal mining - a practice that is making a moonscape out of their countryside.

Each week, coal companies use explosives equal to the Hiroshima bomb to turn mountaintops into rubble and expose coal seams. The consequences are ghastly. Often, the blasts destroy wells or allow them to be poisoned by contaminants that decades of surface and underground mining have created. Residents say the earth-moving has also caused more flooding. And in 2004, a boulder dislodged by coal company blasting killed a 3-year-old Virginia boy in his bed.Coal accounts for just 15 percent of New England's electricity, so even Cape Wind, which would use offshore wind turbines to supply power equal to three-quarters of Cape Cod's demand, would not stop much of the devastation of Appalachia. But activists such as Janet Keating and Chuck Nelson of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition hope that Cape Wind will usher in a whole new era of energy production that lessens the nation's dependence on coal. The country gets 50 percent of its power from coal, the biggest carbon emitter among fossil fuels.

Short of a nationwide shift away from coal and toward renewable sources, the Appalachia activists would like to see Congress pass the Clean Water Protection Act. This bill would reverse one of the Bush administration's most damaging concessions to industry on the environmental front. The Environmental Protection Agency decided in 2002 that mountaintop-removal miners' practice of dumping their waste into stream beds did not violate the Clean Water Act of 1970. The EPA decided the material was "fill," not waste.

If Congress passes the new bill, the material would correctly be defined as waste again, and coal companies would be forced to return the waste onto the original site. This would not necessarily stop this form of mining, but it would change its economics, which now make coal the least costly source of electricity. "They call this cheap energy," Nelson told the Globe, "but it's extremely costly to the people who have to live there."

The activists are controversial figures back home. Although coal employment in West Virginia has declined from 150,000 in 1970 to fewer than 15,000 now, coal is still seen as the area's economic mainstay. Tellingly, none of the state's members of Congress has signed on to the Clean Water Protection Act. But Keating and Nelson see a noncoal and environmentally benign industry for their region: wind turbines on the ridges. Approval of Cape Wind and passage of the water protection act would help usher in that new era.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

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