There's nothing good about this recession. With millions of people losing their jobs, their homes, their health care, their educational choices... such times are "opportunities" only in the same way that a hard punch to the face is an opportunity to yearn for the time when your nose was still straight.
Still, not everything that results from a disaster is a disaster. People who have held jobs in large companies may become entrepreneurs out of necessity rather than choice -- but some portion of them will succeed in ways we can't yet predict, bringing a new vitality to our economy. Politicians enticed to support massive corporate excess will temporarily display enough sense (or chagrin) to pass regulations that may blunt the next cycle of greed run wild. Natural resources strained by rapid growth may benefit from at least a momentary slow-down in the rapacious "progress."
When things are going well, it's hard to stop and ask "are we doing the right thing?" Now that things aren't going so well, the temptation is to split our time between looking at where we went wrong and scrambling to get things back just the way they were. But there's a real opportunity here, one that can both create jobs, help the environment, and send a message about corporate responsibility.
We can end mountaintop removal mining. Right now. Immediately.
At first glance, this may seem like the worst possible time to address such a problem. After all, we are talking about people's jobs -- not to mention the half of all electricity in the United States that comes from coal. But the situation isn't that simple.
Demand for coal is down by 3%. If you compare that decline to the drop in your 401k, it may not seem all that large. It's huge. For 125 years the demand for coal has known only one direction -- up. This fall in demand is the largest on record. With industry closing plants or reducing shifts, and with individuals being more conscious of their power usage, the need for power is actually going down (one of those things we've been told could never happen). Hopefully, both individuals and businesses will take advantage of the funds now available to improve the efficiency of their heating and cooling, so that even when the economy recovers the trend toward lower power consumption will continue.
That decline in coal demand has already cost jobs for coal miners. But ending mountaintop removal mining can help with that. How? There are (on a very simple level) three kinds of coal mines.
Underground mines -- where coal is removed using "continuous miners" or "longwall" machines that remove 50-90% of the coal. Both underground methods will eventually result in subsidence (a drop of the surface) that is highly disruptive to any man-made object over the coal mine (roads, homes, etc). With longwall operations, this subsidence will happen almost immediately. You do not want to own a home above an underground mine, but since underground mining leaves the strata between the coal and the surface intact, it's by far the least disruptive practice.
Surface mines -- most surface mines face a "return to original conditions" rule that means that after mining the surface of the land should reflect the way it looked before mining began. Hills where there were hills, valleys where there were valleys, streams where there were streams. Water quality going out of the mine has to match that of water coming in. Species diversity on the surface has to match that of the surrounding area. Granted, this can be done very poorly -- and it was -- particularly in the Midwest and in mines that predate the latest regulations (often called "pre-law" mines). It can also be done very well. When a surface mine is active, it's never pretty, but I can show you areas that have been reclaimed that you would never guess had once been open pits.
Mountaintop removal and contour strip -- these operations are also surface mines, but they operate under special rules. Because they are situated on steep slopes, they are allowed to place the debris from mining in surrounding valleys (these operations are also call "valley fill" mines). They also don't have to reclaim the land to it's original contour. No one can mistake a mountain where MTR has taken place for one where it hasn't -- because the mountain is gone. The nature of MTR also means that streams are dammed by debris, drastically changing water quality for all the animals (and communities) that lie downstream.
The ability to drop their waste into surrounding valleys and the limited reclamation make MTR operations very different from other surface mines. In ordinary mines, it's impractical to mine deeper than about 200 feet. However, mountaintop removal operations will remove 400', 600', even 800' from the top of an Appalachian mountain. The result is a flat stump where a mountain once stood, surrounded by a ring of destruction.
Because MTR takes place in the mountains of Appalachia, rather than in one of the areas where national media is based, the destructive nature of the practice gets little examination. However, the numbers involved in the practice are enormous. Every day, MTR mines use more explosive power than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Over 1,000 miles of wild Appalachian streams were covered over by valley fills by 2001 -- since then, MTR has greatly increased. By next year, mountaintop removal will have leveled an area of the Appalachians equal in size to the state of Delaware.
Yet, for all those huge numbers, mountaintop removal accounts for only 5% of the coal mined in the United States. And here's where we get that opportunity. As the demand for coal has dropped, companies have been closing underground mines and other surface operations in favor of mountaintop removal. The reason: those mines represent the best bang for the buck in a low-margin / low demand market. Because MTR mines have little reclamation and high automation, they're "high productivity." Meaning that, among eastern mines at least, they have high tons/worker ratios.
If MTR were removed from the scene, the market would support more underground or return-to-contour surface operations, both of which would demand more workers than MTR.
Employment in the extraction industries--oil, gas, and coal plus logging and direct support jobs--added up to 3.6% of the estimated employment in April 2009 in West Virginia. In other words, there were twice as many people unemployed in West Virginia last month as there were employed in all extraction industry jobs. ... In this economy, Mountaintop Removal mining and underground mines are competing with one another to provide supply to meet limited demand. Mine owners and operators are closing down operations, starting with their highest cost mines, typically, underground mines. The best way to keep underground miners employed is to stop Mountaintop Removal mining.
So by keeping MTR in the game right now at a time of low demand, we're actually chopping back on mining jobs.
Not only that, but MTR has other direct effects on employment in Appalachia. West Virginia has the highest percentage of mining jobs in the area, but already, travel and tourism services in West Virginia employ over twice as many people as mines of all types -- and MTR is only a fraction of that total. MTR threatens all those jobs even as it reduces jobs in mining. It's no coincidence that the counties with the most MTR are among the poorest in the state.
the counties that host MTR are often the poorest in Appalachia. For instance, in McDowell County, West Virginia, which produces the most coal in the state, over 37% of residents live below the poverty line.
If you're worried that we could need the energy produced from MTR, don't be. There are other, far better ways to generate energy from these mountains -- ways that produce far more power, better jobs, and more revenue without ruining the environment for one time gain.
The study shows that the proposed wind farm, consisting of 164 wind turbines and generating 328 MW of electricity, would provide over $1.74 million in annual property taxes to Raleigh County. By comparison, the coal severance taxes related to the mountaintop removal mining would provide the county with only $36,000 per year.
Only a few months ago, it seemed as if this decision had already been made. Back in March the EPA put a hold on mountaintop removal operations, and everyone who had been involved in this issue for so long celebrated. It seemed as if common sense would finally prevail. Unfortunately that euphoria was all too transitory. In May, the EPA began greenlighting MTR operations again, resuming the process that's already seen the destruction of over 400 mountains in Appalachia. We must continue to pressure the Obama administration to live up to their promises, but if mountaintop removal is to be stopped for good, we can't depend on the EPA or any other agency's interpretation of existing regulations. We can't count on the courts to take care of it for us. It's going to take direct, definite action.
In the House, urge your Representative to support the Clean Water Protection Act. This bill was reintroduced in the new Congress and already has more sponsors than it had in the previous session. Your Representative, even if they have already signed on, needs a call to let them know that we need this bill now, not later.
The fight has also move to the Senate side. Please help support the Appalachia Restoration Act. This bill was introduced in March by Senator Cardin and is a match to the Clean Water Protection ACt in the House. The Senate bill has already picked up important support (including Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, whose state has suffered from MTR, and new Senator Kirsten Gillibrand). This bill is now before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The committee is chaired by Senator Barbara Boxer, who has not signed on as a co-sponsor.
If you happen to live in a state where your Senator is on this committee, please contact them and tell them how important is is to you that this bill reaches the Senate floor quickly. Yes, that includes Republican Senators, and yes it includes calling the offices of those already signed up as co-sponsors.
Sen. Barbara Boxer [D-CA]
Sen. James Inhofe [R-OK]
Sen. Lamar Alexander [R-TN]
Sen. John Barrasso [R-WY]
Sen. Max Baucus [D-MT]
Sen. Christopher Bond [R-MO]
Sen. Benjamin Cardin [D-MD]
Sen. Thomas Carper [D-DE]
Sen. Michael Crapo [R-ID]
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY]
Sen. Amy Klobuchar [D-MN]
Sen. Frank Lautenberg [D-NJ]
Sen. Jeff Merkley [D-OR]
Sen. Bernard Sanders [I-VT]
Sen. Arlen Specter [D-PA]
Sen. Tom Udall [D-NM]
Sen. David Vitter [R-LA]
Sen. George Voinovich [R-OH]
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI]
There's a letter writing campaign being managed by the folks at I Love Mountains. Go. It won't take ten minutes.