CNN correspondent Soledad O'Brien's recent piece on mountaintop removal (MTR) in the Appalachian mountains has the troubling title, "Steady job or healthy environment: what [sic] would you choose?"
How about we choose both?
In any case, MTR does not, despite industry claims, deliver employment to offset its environmental damage. It's simply a win-win for Big Coal and its political supporters, and a lose-lose for ordinary people who live in mining areas. Whatever the industry would have you believe, basing an economy on coal is not a sustainable development plan. A study by the Appalachian Regional Commission noted the effects of mining on employment in Central Appalachia:
"As employment in Central Appalachia's mining sector has declined over time...many counties that were already typically experiencing relatively poor and tenuous economic circumstances...have been unable to successfully adapt to changing economic conditions."
Michael Hendryx and Melissa M Ahern found similar results when they investigated the region: "The heaviest coal mining areas of Appalachia had the poorest socio-economic conditions."
In addition to the negative impact on employment, mountaintop removal has terrible effects on the land. Rob Goodwin of Coal River Mountain Watch recently said of the land around Southern Appalachia:
"Southern Appalachia is unique. Because there were no glaciers here, the topsoil is some of the oldest in the world and that's why there are ramps, ginseng and molly moochers [morels], among other valuable species. What you are doing here on this mine site is destroying the 10,000-year-old species that, regardless of what you do, will not grow back."
The health toll is also steep, as several academic studies have indicated. This week, West Virginia's junior senator, Joe Manchin, was bashing the EPA at a constituent breakfast in Huntington. The Senate now has before it the House plan, the so-called Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 (HR 2018), which would restrict the EPA's ability to veto permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. Janet Keating, executive director of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, attended and referred Manchin to what he'd said on CNN, that there is no clear evidence of human health impacts from MTR. She then handed him copies of the 18 studies showing or suggesting health impacts. Manchin told Keating that at the time the CNN show was taped, these studies were not available.
Huh? I had copies of those studies. Surely a US Senator and former governor has as much access to published information as I do?
The health and economic problems caused by coal may explain why we're not buying the attacks on the EPA. A majority of voters in four Appalachian states want their water protected and disapprove of mountaintop mining. The same day Manchin was in Huntington, Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research & Consulting released the results (pdf) of a poll commissioned by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club. Of 1,315 people interviewed in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia, "Three-quarters support fully enforcing – and even increasing protections in – the Clean Water Act to safeguard streams, rivers and lakes in their states from mountaintop removal coal mining … Just 8% of voters oppose it. Support for this proposal is far-reaching, encompassing solid majorities of Democrats (86%), independents (76%), Republicans (71%) and Tea Party supporters (67%)."
The reaction to the poll from Jason Hayes, the communications director for the American Coal Council?
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"They're doing a numbers job. They need to frighten people. They need more membership dollars … It's all very frightening if you don't understand what's going on."
What's going in is that this is an industry that spends money for fancy websites to "dispel myths" – for instance, by telling you that "reclamation" returns the mountainsides to their original state. For a more typical picture of reclamation, you might want to check out the PBS film "Razing Appalachia". And speaking of coal dollars, they appear to be benefiting our local politicians, including Manchin. As Manuel Quinones and Elana Schor pointed out:
"Senator Joe Manchin (Democrat, West Virginia) is more than just a supporter of his state's influential coal producers – he's a full-fledged industry insider. On his financial disclosures for 2009 and 2010, Manchin reported significant earnings from Enersystems Inc, a coal brokerage that he helped run before his political star rose. In the 19 months before winning his Senate seat in a hard-fought special election, Manchin reported operating income of $1,363,916 from Enersystems. His next disclosure showed $417,255 in Enersystems income."
Of course, Manchin says his investments are in a blind trust, but do you think he doesn't know that what's good for the coal industry is good for Joe Manchin? As filmmaker Mari-Lynn Evans has said of the CNN programme referred to by Keating:
"Mountain top removal mining is not an issue of jobs v the environment. It is an issue of corporate profits and corrupt politicians v the health and safety of human beings living under MTR sites in Appalachia. WVU scientists estimate over 11,000 people die in Appalachia each year because of coal. MTR mining provides less than 4,000 direct MTR jobs in West Virginia. Does that mean, for every MTR job, we must accept that those jobs will cost each of us the lives of two or three of our friends and loved ones? This is jobs v genocide. If you don't understand that, then you don't understand the story."
And the rest of us are paying, too, if not to the same extent. Air and water pollution travel past the immediate region. Social costs to the environment and health are not payed by the coal industry, and thus artificially lower the cost of coal energy and encourage its consumption. As economists Todd L Cherry of Appalacian State University and Jason Shogrenb of the Univisty of Wyoming pointed out in a 2002 study (pdf) (before the devastation of mountaintop removal had reached its current levels):
"Coal is by far the most under-priced energy resource: the price per ton of coal was about $30, but the external costs are nearly $160. Also including climate change risks, the external costs would be about $190 per ton."
And prices are further lowered by vast subsidies (pdf). And think of the opportunity costs forgone to develop cleaner energy. Interestingly, another full-fledged insider, Dick Kelly, who is retiring as chief executive officer of Exel Energy, told journalist Don Selby:
"We've got to get off fossil fuels … The quicker the better. All [that some members of Congress] are worried about is the next two or six years when they run for re-election. They just keep kicking the can down the road … I don't know how they can deny the science. I really don't … I think one of the misconceptions is that many people believe that wind is just outrageously expensive. Truth is, wind power competes very well with natural gas. The technology is getting better. We are getting a lot more kilowatts out of our windmills now. Even solar has come down 50% in the last two years … I'd be OK if there were never any more coal."
How long will our politicans favour the coal industry with subsidies and lax safety and health regulations? Consider the cost of this choice – in lives, health and damage to the air we breath, the water we drink and the land that provides us with nourishment and recreation. Wouldn't it be better for them to enact polices that support efficiency, conservation and alternative energy sources with a lower environmental impact, such as wind, solar and geothermal?
That way, we might actually get steady jobs and a healthy environment.