World's Fair

[When we last left our dueling bloggers, they were reading Erik Reece’s Death of a Mountain. And now, part 2, as continued from the first part of the conversation, wherein — beyond the Reece article — the bloggers made mention of mountains, their Appalachian disappearance, the new availability of golfing in West Virginia and Kentucky, the new opportunity to land planes safely on formerly hilly terrain, and the questions oddly left unasked about coal, energy, and where we get it.]

DN: You know that article is quite the eye-opener. And it’s some of the smaller statements like the following that really get to me (italized by me):

In this way the unassuming liverwort dramatizes one of the issues at the heart of mountaintop removal. In response to the charge that such mining methods bury hundreds of central Appalachian streams, Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, is quick to point out that an intermittent stream, such as this one, is not really a stream at all, because there are no fish in it. According to this line of thought, if something like the liverwort is of no immediate and obvious use to us, then it is of no use at all. That modest flora like liverwort help hold rich soil in place, purify water downstream, and provide habitat to other small animals such as salamanders – or that they even hold an intrinsic value beyond what we might understand today – is a logic to which Homo sapiens americanus seems curiously immune.

It sort of speaks to the need of some bigger cultural shift for the rest of us, or them rather. It’s amazing how some of the elements of sustainable thinking are so absent. Although, you’d think that a symbol as big as the dissapearance of mountain tops might just be the sort of thing to supply such a paradigm shift. I noticed the article is over a year old now. Do you know what the situation is like now? It’s in your neck of the woods – are the students around you, like, uberconcerned? A lot of things can happen in a year – look at Tom Cruise for example.

BRC: I don’t know of any major shifts — except, you know, for the attention brought to WV by that Sago Mine Disaster. (Or check out this op-ed.) where all the miners (but one) died. And that only encouraged people to suggest that since we need coal, and since mining is dangerous (this was new information? the stately march of WV congresspeople to the media podium after “doing something about this tragedy” seemed to suggest so) then having fewer people and simply removing the mountain from the coal, instead of removing the coal from the mountain, would be a better way to go. The holes in that logic — or the assumptions that guide that logic, I should say — are just baffling to me. We should make that a new puzzle, or challenge — who can come up with the most unexamined assumptions in that logic.

DN: ooh I like puzzles…

BRC: There *is* a movement against this kind of stuff, usually couched within environmental activism or environmental justice terms, and one that is prominent and has a solid presence is Mountain Justice Summer. So you get all the cultural entailments of “environmental activism,” where critics of the activists paint those activists as against jobs or against the economy or against energy. But you also start to get a lot of interesting alliances between local groups and anti-Coal Industry advocates.

So what do we do here? I had said in another note (off-line) that the issue was baffling to me because there are so many directions to consider:
Environmental Health — fisheries, forests, valleys, towns, pollution
Environmental Justice — livelihood, poverty, what happens when toxic sludge ponds spill over or through their dams (people don’t even generally know about sludge pond spills like this 300 million gallon one from 2000 — by the by, Massey Energy, the one’s who lost their sludge, called it “an Act of God”)
Energy issues (which are also environmental health and E.J. issues)– why do we have all this coal, why do we need it, why is it the answer to a problem? (for this, I just got a book from the good people at Seed, Big Coal, which summarizes alot of the main issues here). And this would get us to a Nuclear Energy conversation.
Corporate Coal — matters of industrial governance, influence, and power; the changes since Bush came in (surprise: lots of Bush-friendly types put into lots of high-powered positions that favor industry over safety)

Here’s a toxic sludge pond, sort of just waiting to spill. This one is set to hold 8 billion gallons of the stuff. I said toxic sludge, right? That’s because it’s toxic. And sludgy.

i-10e26a85bf00c832b481444e641aa79b-Toxic sludge pond.jpg
This one’s the Marfork Coal Company’s impoundment, in Whitesville, WV

And then from the EPA, we have this too:

“The impact of mountaintop removal on nearby communities is devastating. Dynamite blasts needed to splinter rock strata are so strong they crack the foundations and walls of houses. Mining dries up an average of 100 wells a year and contaminates water in others. In many coalfield communities, the purity and availability of drinking water are keen concerns.”

Dammit, it’s unnerving.

DN: O.K. now we’re more like PBS. But point taken. In retrospect, maybe the silly idea of a larger than life + absurd symbol like “Mountain Top Man” may be just the thing needed, or maybe a “Mountain Top Man with super puzzle solving powers.” I bring it back to this, partially in jest, but partially for real because it seemed to worked in my neck of the woods when dealing with an environmental issue regarding untreated effluent pouring into one of our harbours (I’m referring to a Mr. Floatie – you’ll have to click this to believe it, but it’s real folks, and also very effective!)

…But also that he’s done an exceptional job of raising public awareness and generating favourable news coverage. One, lone guy in a homemade costume — backpack frame, garden mesh, mattress foam, brown velour fabric, sailor’s hat — and a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. The wretched double entendres for all occasions, delivered in the Floatie falsetto: “We really need to get movement on this issue … Would you like me to send you a granola bar to help get things started … Don’t dump on me!” (Vancouver Sun, Jul 22/06)

Anyway, sorry… what were we talking about again?

BRC: Well we’re either talking about what Mountain Top Coal Removal is or we’re talking about what to do about it. Or we’re talking about examples of same. On that last one, I instantly thought of the “protesters” who are “against” a proposed wind warm off the coast of Nantucket. From the folks who brought us Billionaires for Bush, the Y.A.W.N. campaigners (Yachters Against Windmills Now) chant, “Cape Wind makes our blue blood boil/ Let’s get our energy from Mideast oil!” and has some nice commentary:

YAWN opposes the new Cape Wind Farm proposal and pledges to spend millions to drag out the regulatory process. “We are big supporters of coal,” said Peabody [the guy in charge]. “We believe that strip-mining in distant states is a far superior energy source than sustainable wind generation. I’ve seen those flat top mountains flying over Appalachia in my Gulfstream IV and it’s not that bad.”

Facetious, yes, and I like it. But they highlight what’s probably the over-riding issue of those we listed above: environmentally healthy energy. That, of course, follows from the assumption that producing more energy is what we need, and so let’s find out the best way to do that. I don’t agree with that assumption, though I recognize that it gives foundation to pretty much everyone’s policy position on this issue.

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