A documentary worth seeing: The Last Mountain

Posted on November 25th, 2011 in ecology,Energy,Government,Health,Technology by Robert Miller

Mountaintop removal eliminates the mountain and fills the valley below

I have been waiting for the documentary “The Last Mountain” to be released to my  Netflix streaming queue for sometime and then it suddenly showed up, so I watched it a few nights ago. Directed by Bill Haney, it tells the gripping story of the fight to keep Coal River Mountain West Virginia from being destroyed by the Massey Energy  Company.  The residents of Coal River Valley have been threatened for years by mountain top removal in a region of the state that has breath-taking, tree-covered hills and valleys; this region however has been progressively destroyed by coal mining through the technique of  mountaintop removal, based on massive, mechanized  machinery and explosives. Although Robert Kennedy played a major role as an activist and adviser in the documentary, and clearly adds a sense of national urgency to the issues addressed, the story is also about how local residents of Coal River Valley got together and formed an activist resistance to the Massey Coal Company’s plan to remove Coal River Mountain, a mountain that serves as a watershed for residents of the valleys below.  Many other mountains in the region have already been destroyed by coal mining, such that Coal River Mountain was and is the “last mountain standing”  of significance for the region. The removal of this mountain will destroy the water system of people living downstream and increase the severity of flooding, two well-known, obligatory features of mountaintop removal.  Many residents believe that Massey Coal wants to depopulate the Coal River Valley and eliminate downstream community occupancy, to give them more space for strip-mining. It is a very ugly process.

While the Obama administration has been more sensitive to the destruction of the water supply by mountaintop coal mining and violations of environmental laws, the original permits to remove Coal River Mountain were given during the Bush administration and Massey Coal has proceeded to execute its march towards mountain destruction. However, in a somewhat duplicitous manner, the Obama administration continues to issue permits for more mountaintop removal in the region. An interesting feature of this controversy was revealed in the documentary based on studies  that raise the feasibility of putting windmill generators across the top of Coal River Mountain. Those who have studied this suggest that wind power generation would produce more jobs and give the neighboring communities more long-term income through power generation and improvements in the tax base, when compared to the resources generated by the Massey mountaintop removal project,  which  of course will end at some time in the future. The demonstrations, sit-ins and tree sitting by environmentalists and residents are greeted with hostility by the miners who still have jobs working for Massey Coal. Oddly enough, I didn’t see many of the mountain top removal defenders (50 percent of our electricity comes from coal) argue that the future of the industry depends on the development of new clean coal technologies, none of which were on display or even discussed. Many coal-based power plants claim that they are ready for “carbon-capture” technology when it becomes available. But that possibility is very remote because once in service, the public will not tolerate retrofitting for carbon-capture, even if the technique becomes feasible, as it would add enormous costs to existing energy production. If carbon-capture or some similar clean coal technology ever comes along, it is likely to increase the cost of coal-based power plants to a prohibitively high level. Coal is currently the worst source of air pollution and the long list of its pollution offenses  goes beyond carbon dioxide and includes such things as mercury contamination, which accounts for warnings we get about eating fish too often because of their high mercury content. Mercury is toxic to the brain and impacts on brain development. It might be that Republicans have been eating too much fish.

Robert Kennedy is articulate in pointing out that the impact of Massey Coal has been to increase the poverty of the region, first by destroying the unions in the 1980s (companies close mines, send unionized workers home and then reopened the mines with non-union miners, complete with reduced salary and benefits) and second, by reducing the labor force through automation and modernization of equipment and techniques: strip mining is replacing deep hole mining, with a reduction in the labor force needed.  But if the true cost of coal mining was reflected in the price of coal, including the serious health care costs and safety issues, the cost of this form of energy would be prohibitively expensive. We are not just trapped by the history of the region as a long-standing coal-mining center, but also by the powerful lobbying interests of coal mining and transportation (trains) that thrive on their operations in West Virginia and other coal-intensive states.  One can add that Wall Street has billions invested in these companies because they are profitable and seem to be free from serious regulatory control. Add to that formula the corrupt organization of the state’s environmental protection agency, which allows coal companies to violate water and air quality standards without fines, and you have an updated version of “Love Canal.”

The environmental damage does not stop with a disappearing mountain top. The heavy coal mining leads to toxic waste sites in the mountain regions above the valleys, created from the water used to wash the coal before it is shipped and these sites leak and pollute the water supply downstream, carrying highly toxic material.  Several websites have been put up to monitor the mining operation, but the state and Federal Government seem to collude as obstacles for better environmental regulation. The trouble is that while wind energy might be successful for the future of local inhabitants, how will the energy needs of others be met who receive the coal over long distance railroad shipments? You have to decommission these coal plants one at a time, when you have a suitable alternative and until that can be achieved, the forces promoting mountaintop removal will keep going with few obstacles in sight that can stop them. If you had only two solutions to our energy needs, nuclear power and coal mining, the preferred choice would be obvious.  The solution at hand is to build a new, modern transcontinental power grid that collects electricity from all forms of power generated in different ways and distribute that power efficiently to homes and businesses. This is an infrastructure issue. Yes, it would be better to replace coal-fired power plants with natural gas in the short-run, and it seems obvious that the wind turbine option for the people of Coal River Valley makes far more economic and environmental sense, but how to resolve the challenges of implementing this new technology in place of coal is something we can only achieve through the force of a national government, not a state government, which, in the case of West Virginia seems hopelessly corrupt and entirely devoted to the private, rather than the public interest.


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