Sunday, October 18, 2009

Phillips: Moving Mountains for Energy

Stephanie Phillips, Associate Editor
Writing From: Portland, Oregon

The debut column of Stephanie Phillips’ “impacted community profile” series.

So we all know that the “environment” is a hot topic. Every day, there is growing energy in the media, in policy making and in debate devoted to the large-scale environmental problems of the world. We all know about climate change, the ozone hole and rainforest destruction and we all either love or hate the posed solutions of cap and trade and carbon taxes, nuclear power and “green jobs.”

Ultimately, however, the “environmental problem” is both more macro and more micro than these hot issues. I see these as only symptoms of a larger societal problem, tied to the basic ways that people relate to both energy and to capitalism. We are addicted to energy, and currently produce it in a way and on a scale that we know cannot be sustained – resources we rely on will run out and the “landfill” of the atmosphere will fill up.

Simultaneously, our economic structure so heavily discounts the future, making these problems incredibly difficult to solve politically. We have yet to find a way to effectively incorporate long-term environmental consequences into the cost of energy and carbon pollution, and thus the price of commodities and the freedom to pollute significantly deflates the price of energy.

Further, due to the economic efficiency of centralized production and distribution, power generation and its ugly consequences come in the form of huge generating facilities and resource extraction projects that are so far removed from urban and suburban centers, that the average person can easily claim ignorance as to the effects of our energy use. Thus, in a way, when we turn on the lights at night, it’s almost magic; it just comes through the walls and into our lives. We understand the consequences in theory, but in our day to day lives, we pay the low electric
bill once a month, and ta-da: we have access to an endless supply of electrons!

It isn’t endless though, and there are other destructive effects to our energy addiction and to this “efficient” method of power generation. Climate change is one we are all aware of, certainly, and yet at the same time it remains an elusive idea that is difficult to pinpoint and relate to the personal. There are other effects though, direct and harmful effects on local communities linked to the realities of power generation, both in the United States and abroad. These are happening now and their effects on people are very visible and tangible.

Therefore, I want to take the opport unity, in a monthly “impacted community profile” to describe in depth some of these more local environmental problems in the United States (that are linked to the same energy-use disease that has caused climate change), and how average Americans are affected by our energy dependence.

Impacted Region: Appalachia
Energy Type: Coal

Problem: Method of extraction – mountain-top removal

Coal combustion accounts for 22% of US energy needs and 51% of our electric needs. Coal is in domestic abundance and the United States exports it to other countries.

The affected region is Appalachia – which includes West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, etc. This is coal country, and it has been providing the nation with a significant power source for over a century. Traditionally it is extracted via dangerous underground mines, however beginning in the 1960s, many companies began using a far easier method of extraction

– rather than digging for coal in a mountain, they simply dynamite the top of the mountain off entirely, exposing the coal seams, and then scrape coal out directly. The method is called mountain top removal. Entire mountain tops are left barren and exposed in the process, and locals are forced to endure the increased risks of landslides, water and air toxicity, exploding rock, horrible noise, devastated environments and fewer and fewer jobs.

The local effects are horrific. First, a location on top of a mountain is clear-cut, and all vegetation is removed. Clear cutting is not only a horrible eye-sore for a region, but it destroys local ecosystems, and leaves loose soil, which is more conducive to landslides. This poses a direct threat to nearby property owners.

Second, dynamite is used to blast away the upper layers (up to 800 ft) of the mountain, exposing the coal. Large rock explosions can be dangerous to nearby homes.

Third, large machines are used to remove the loose earth. Dry land waste or “overburden” is pushed into valleys, destroying local ecosystems. Over 700 miles of headwater streams in the region have been buried by valley fill.

Fourth, the exposed coal is scooped up and hauled away to be used to in power generation. It must first be washed to remove excess soil and rock, which generates sludge – a liquid mixture of coal and earth that is collected and stored in sludge ponds trapped by dams at mine locations.

There are over 600 sludge impoundments in the southeast region, and spills pose a potential risk. This past December, a coal sludge holding pond at a power plant in Tennessee broke and over 500 million gallons of toxic sludge dumped into the local environment, damaging homes and devastating the area for miles. The spill entered the local water supply as well, posing potential long-term health effects to those in the region.
Once the process if finished, the land left behind is hideous – a barren exposed wasteland.

Mountain top removal poses huge risks to local communities, in terms of toxics exposure and landslides. Simultaneously, it provides very few jobs for the community, and does not bolster the economy in the way traditional coal mining does. The process is popular because it is cheap and easy – and can be performed primarily with machines.

There is no good reason to support mountain top mining of coal. It benefits coal companies only and keeps energy prices even more deflated. Coal is already the most environmentally damaging fossil fuel: it emits the most CO2 in combustion, while also emitting many other pollutants that cause acid rain and deteriorate human health. It dirties the air with particulate matter and increases asthma rates. It wastes the most energy in production, with efficiency rates in the 30% range (meaning it wastes up to 70% of potential energy). On top of all this, the existence of mountain top removal renders it even worse. It is amazing to me that this practice continues despite growing environmental awareness.

Activists have been fighting mountain top removal and coal-fired generation for decades. October 30th is an “end mountain top removal” day of action. I implore you to engage your political voice, join in the protest, and voice your support of stopping this terrible practice. Simultaneously, I implore you to remember where your energy comes from, and use as little as you can.

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