3.20.2008

mountaintop removal and other heartbreaks

When I think about the collapse of the United States - all the events and phenomena I throw into the wmtc category "US regression" - the piece that makes me saddest is the destruction of the country's immense physical beauty.

Destroying the environment is nothing new, of course, but as resources become more scarce, the pace of the destruction will pick up. And since all the agencies that are supposed to protect the country actually represent industry, it would take a full scale overhaul of the government to reverse the trends. (Did I say overhaul? Perhaps I meant revolution.)

I grew up visiting National Parks on family vacations. Those trips triggered my lifelong hunger for travel, and also instilled in me a deep appreciation of natural beauty. I'm not a backwoods hiker and I don't even like camping, but being around natural beauty - mountains, coastline, forest, desert, rock formations, anything - is, for me, one of life's great gifts.

Both the US and Canada are such huge land masses, with so many different kinds of terrains and landscapes. (That's what happens when you take over a whole continent!) Both contain such an incredible wealth and diversity of natural beauty. I hope to see as much of Canada as I can, but I'm not yet done exploring the United States, either.

I have often imagined what the US might be like if its great natural wonders had not been preserved from commercial use, if people like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and Oswald West hadn't been successful. Grand Canyon Condos? Redwood Golf Course? Or would all the giant Sequoias have been pulped?

It's no surprise that the US's great physical legacy is being eroded by the same forces destroying its democracy.

There are snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park, creating a haze over pollution Old Faithful, frightening bison and elk into ditches as they flee in terror. Supposedly we have to "balance" the concerns of the snowmobile industry against the intent and purpose of the park itself, along with its wildlife, human visitors and rangers. Yellowstone Park Rangers need respirators to breathe during snowmobile season.

If you visit the Grand Canyon, you can buy a book that says the magnificent sight was created by the biblical flood of Noah fame. I blogged about that way back here. (And looking back, I see I was writing this same post.)

Right now, the British mining company Vane Minerals has uranium-mining rights right outside the Grand Canyon. How did they get those rights? From the US Forest Service. Several large environmental organizations have joined together to fight this. Whether or not they succeed, it is clear that the battle lines have changed. I fear we will only hold back the tide for so long. (Which doesn't mean we should stop fighting.)

Among the many environmental horrors being perpetrated in the United States, one of the most sickening - as well as permanent and irreversible - is mountaintop removal. This is a radical form of coal mining in which entire mountains are blasted out of existence. Local water is polluted, forests permanently destroyed (with all the subsequent flooding and mudslides that brings), landscapes altered forever.

In 2002, the Environmental Protection [sic] Agency reclassified the waste product of coal mines as "fill". And because it is now fill, it does not have to be replaced. In short, the EPA gutted the Clean Water Act of 1970, which was the result of so much activism, and which led to the rehabilitation of formerly polluted waters throughout the US.

Mountaintop removal is taking place in 23 states, but it is particularly devastating to the Appalachian region.

People from Appalachia are often the butt of jokes; poverty and isolation will do that. But it is an area with an old, distinct culture, from which some of America's greatest music - and great labour organizing and radical activism - was born. It is also supposed to be distinctly beautiful. (On a purely selfish note, this is one area of the US I have barely seen, and its beauty may be gone before I get a chance to.)

Mountaintop removal mining has been going on for decades, but its use has recently expanded. And so has the activism against it.

One approach local residents are taking is to try to raise awareness in other areas that our energy use contributes to mountaintop renewal. For example, witness what took place at a recent town meeting in Massachusetts. This from the Boston Globe:
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.

For more information about the fight against mountaintop removal, and how you can help, try the End Mountaintop Removal Action and Resource Center (cool URL!), the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a West Virginia group with sickening high-resolution photos of the devastation, Mountain Justice Summer, and Appalachian Voices.

All the large US environmental groups are also fighting this, but I thought I would highlight local, grassroots activism. I wonder when they will start to throw themselves on the gears of the machine.

I don't know what I can do from here, but I'm going to find out. Although I have felt alienated from the US for a very long time, the most radical part of me will always be American, a country that was born of revolution. My parents taught me that this was the true national anthem, and they were right: "This land is my land. This land is your land."

17 comments:

L-girl said...

It just occured to me that there's a parallel to Katrina. Another region of the US with a distinct history, culture, language - being destroyed.

Amy said...

The reference to the Cape Wind project is interesting. Initially, many prominent property owners on the Cape and Islands were opposed to the project because it would destroy the natural vistas seen from the coast. (Among others, Walter Cronkite was particularly outspoken in opposition.) Over time, that opposition has become less outspoken, and the need for a clean and renewable source of energy has become more obvious and more acceptable.

It does seem tragic and almost inevitable that the choices often come down to a choice of alternatives, both of which may result in destroying or at least disturbing the environment.

And yes, in the end it seems industry often wins the battle between those choices.

James said...

In 2002, the Environmental Protection [sic] Agency reclassified the waste product of coal mines as "fill".

The EPA, of course, was one of the first things Bush targetted with his "replace the competent people with cronies" policies -- the same one that put "Heckuva Job, Brownie" in charge of FEMA.

Kinda ironic that the EPA was created by Nixon. One of the most telling signs of how bad Bush is is that he makes Nixon look so good.

L-girl said...

The reference to the Cape Wind project is interesting. Initially, many prominent property owners on the Cape and Islands were opposed to the project because it would destroy the natural vistas seen from the coast. (Among others, Walter Cronkite was particularly outspoken in opposition.)

Oh yes, that was very well publicized.

It does seem tragic and almost inevitable that the choices often come down to a choice of alternatives, both of which may result in destroying or at least disturbing the environment.

I don't see how one can compare having a different view with destroying a mountain, both it itself and the subsequent destruction.

No energy comes without a price (hence the need to use much less), but coal vs wind is a no-brainer. I thought (still do) the opposition to Cape Wind was the height of selfish NIMBYism.

L-girl said...

One of the most telling signs of how bad Bush is is that he makes Nixon look so good.

Oy.

I usually resist that perspective, but about this, it's true.

Also, most of the agencies-becoming-industry phenom happened under Reagan and Bush I. And was never reversed.

Amy said...

I don't see how one can compare having a different view with destroying a mountain, both it itself and the subsequent destruction.

I wasn't suggesting they are comparable. But part of the beauty of nature is seeing it in its undisturbed state. The wind farm may be more than needed and justifiable, but it will still mar the natural state of that coastline, just as cell towers, phone lines, etc., do. A necessary evil that I find unfortunate.

L-girl said...

The wind farm may be more than needed and justifiable, but it will still mar the natural state of that coastline, just as cell towers, phone lines, etc., do. A necessary evil that I find unfortunate.

Yes, I can see that. I'm sure I would feel the same way.

I found the vocal opposition to it so hypocritical - coming, as it was, from supposedly liberal people who presumably understand all the many issues involved in non-renewable energy sources.

Also I just find the mountaintop removal so extremely heartbreaking, all else pales in comparison. Mountains can never be rebuilt. They took - how long? - to form. Now humans just obliterate them, forever.

deang said...

I just find mountaintop removal so completely indefensible that it's strange to me to even hear people discussing it calmly, let alone saying it's inevitable. Words fail me on how horrible it makes me feel, but its practice brings to mind the word evil. This is one of those issues that makes me want to turn back to those pre-1980 "back to the land" stances of attempting to live without energy as much as possible, though I realize that's considered anathema these days. But now that the damage is already done and people are accepting of it (and even if they weren't, the Reaganized industries won't stop doing it), I just turn my mind to the vast expanse of astronomical time.

L-girl said...

Dean, I share your feelings. It leaves me dumb with rage. I was crying when I wrote part of this post.

I think the movement you're thinking of is alive, at least experiencing a resurgence.

Whatever you do, tho, keep a computer. We need the connection.

redsock said...

Also, most of the agencies-becoming-industry phenom happened under Reagan and Bush I. And was never reversed.

... by that noted "liberal", William Jefferson Clinton.

Amy said...

Mountaintop removal, like strip mining, is beyond tragic. Believe me, I am not disagreeing. Everything we humans do that destroys our world is tragic---building more highways to get us to shopping malls and big box stores, polluting the oceans and rivers, dumping toxic chemicals, etc. And yet I confess--I like my conveniences, my creature comforts, my car, my computer, all the things that suck energy out of the earth's resources.

It just always seems that whatever we do to try and conserve energy has its own costs. If we use paper bags instead of plastic, we kill more trees. If we switch to compact fluorescent bulbs, they contain mercury. If I use the computer to read the paper instead of buying it in hard copy, I use electricity. It's enough to make a well-intentioned person crazy.

The phenomenon of the regulated controlling the regulators predates Reagan, though it obviously became much worse during the Reagan era. But even before that, our agencies---e.g., the FDA, the EPA, the FCC--have always become somewhat captive to the interests of the industries they are supposed to regulate. Money talks, as they say.

(The Sunday NYTimes magazine had an article about how the Supreme Court is now also controlled by business interests.)

L-girl said...

It just always seems that whatever we do to try and conserve energy has its own costs. If we use paper bags instead of plastic, we kill more trees. If we switch to compact fluorescent bulbs, they contain mercury. If I use the computer to read the paper instead of buying it in hard copy, I use electricity. It's enough to make a well-intentioned person crazy.


Yes, everything has costs - but not all costs are the same! Everything on your list is not equal, not by a long shot. There are certainly choices we can make - and that governments and societies can make - that are better than others.

The mercury released from the light bulbs is minute - infintesimal. There's no contest there.

Bags made from recycled paper products are much less harmful to the environment than plastic. (And you can use reuseable, fabric bags.) Etc. etc.

There is a tendency, I think, to make a list like this - then throw up our hands at the futility of it all, and go about our merry way.

But we can investigate our habits and make choices that reduce our own footprint on the earth. And we can agitate for change on a larger scale.

Everything we humans do that destroys our world is tragic---building more highways to get us to shopping malls and big box stores, polluting the oceans and rivers, dumping toxic chemicals, etc. And yet I confess--I like my conveniences, my creature comforts, my car, my computer, all the things that suck energy out of the earth's resources.

But we don't need mountaintop removal to maintain those comforts.

You might not mean it this way, but the implication is that without that evil, we wouldn't have out conveniences and creature comforts. That is simply not true.

Coal mining has been accomplished for a long time without this kind of total destruction. It would be good to use less coal, for sure, but the method by which the coal is extracted is the issue here.

The phenomenon of the regulated controlling the regulators predates Reagan,

Yes, good point. There was a sharp right turn there, but of course it wasn't the first instance.

Amy said...

You might not mean it this way, but the implication is that without that evil, we wouldn't have out conveniences and creature comforts. That is simply not true.

Certainly not what I meant at all. Nor was I throwing my hands up at the futility of it. Just pointing out how confusing the information we get about all this can be. For example, we are switching over to CFL bulbs; then last night on the Evening News, Brian Williams had a piece about the dangers of mercury poisoning if you break one of these things (the feds apparently recommend an 11 step process for cleaning up a broken bulb). And what happens when all those bulbs get placed into the trash instead of being recycled as hazardous waste? So I sat there thinking, "Hm, do I want to risk breaking one of those things?"

L-girl said...

Certainly not what I meant at all. Nor was I throwing my hands up at the futility of it. Just pointing out how confusing the information we get about all this can be.

It sounded like that, and I'm glad that's not what it was.

Re that mercury, I have read in many trustworthy places that it's really not true, that the amount of mercury released is extremely tiny. I will see what I can find. That 11-step thing sounds very strange to me.

jesslamie said...

While it is nice to think that one's social activism could arise from being American or could be traced to the revolution, I have to disagree that America was born of a 'revolution' at least in the social sense. The so-called 'revolution' was instigated by reactionary white slaveowner males who went on to protect white male privilege in their 'revolutionary' 'equality for all (white men)' documents.

Sorry, it was an otherwise good post but let's not give the US positive credit where it's not deserved.

L-girl said...

Naturally you're free to disagree, but I do believe what those white men did was revolutionary.

They were colonists, taking up arms against a monarchy to gain autonomy. In the context of the times, it was absolutely revolutionary.

They were not fully egalitarian or democratic - that's true and very obvious. But that doesn't mean they were not revolutionaries at all.

L-girl said...

Also, it's worth remembering that most revolutions don't end up in democracy, and it's often not even the point. Much totalitarianism is borne of revolution too, unfortunately.