In late October, West Virginia-based Massey Energy began mountaintop removal mining operations on Coal River Mountain, the last intact peak in the bucolic Coal River Valley of southern West Virginia. Massey’s actions are the latest in the coal industry’s legacy of ecological devastation of the Appalachian Mountains, where more than 500 mountaintops have been leveled and 2,000 miles of rivers and streams have been filled with often-toxic mountaintop debris.
As if leveling another Appalachian peak weren’t enough cause for ire, Massey’s dynamiting of Coal River Mountain will also close the door on an ambitious wind-energy proposal that could provide tens of thousands of the region’s residents with clean, renewable energy; create hundreds of jobs; and provide the government of Raleigh County, where Coal River Mountain is located, with over a million dollars in annual tax revenues.
These two radically divergent trajectories — one of environmental destruction and dependency on highly polluting fossil fuels and the other moving toward greater clean-energy production — bring into sharp focus the intensifying political battles over national energy policy, climate change legislation currently before Congress and the high-profile summit in Copenhagen about reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Massey Energy is literally destroying the very thing that could give West Virginians long-lasting jobs and renewable energy,” Judy Bonds, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch and recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003, told The Indypendent. “They’re destroying our future for their own short-term gain.”
A December 2008 study by the environmental consultancy group Downstream Strategies concluded that the high ridges on Coal River Mountain offer an ideal location for an array of 164 wind turbines with a capacity of 328 megawatts of power. Massey’s mountaintop removal, however, could shear more than 1,200 feet off the 3,500-foot peak, thereby marginalizing the location’s wind-energy potential.
While the South’s potential for wind-energy production is limited, several wind farms have been built or licensed in West Virginia in recent years. Turbines atop Coal River Mountain could more than double the state’s wind power.
Downstream Strategies’ study found that the project could also spawn a robust local renewable-energy sector and boost local tax revenues. Mountaintop removal on Coal River Mountain offers a peak of 866 jobs per year, according to the study. A wind array, the study authors estimate, would provide 28 percent more jobs. If the wind turbines are produced locally, the study’s authors claim the facility would produce 314 percent more local jobs than mining. Additionally, the wind array could provide $1.74 million in annual property taxes to the county government. Taxes on coal extraction, conversely, bring in a paltry $36,000 a year nationwide.
The company has been permitted to blast on two Coal Mountain sites, and with each day, the dynamiting of these areas is slowly reducing the wind-energy potential of the mountain. “We’re losing eight wind turbines, about 16 megawatts of power, from the blast area,” Bonds said. “But we’re not just losing a part of the wind project, we’re losing mountain heritage — the streams, the ginseng, the carbon sink of the forest.” Bonds’ roots in the Coal River Mountain region go back 10 generations. Her father and grandfather both worked in the coal industry.
A wind project also poses far fewer environmental hazards than mining, which generates mountains of rubble and lakes of toxic sludge. Traditional mining removes coal from a mountain as miners bore deep into the earth to extract coal from underground seams. Mountaintop removal could be described, however, as removing the mountain from the coal. Companies blast the mountain away by using a mix of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The runoff from these blasts, which often leaches into nearby drinking water, contains an array of toxic metals — such as selenium — that can cause kidney and liver damage as well as nervous-system disorders.
Standing in the way of development of the wind farm are various legal, economic and political hurdles. But proponents of the wind-farm proposal argue that the project should be fully investigated before it’s too late.
“In essence, this is our Waterloo. America really needs to consider which direction we are going in terms of energy production,” Bonds says.
Coal is big business in West Virginia, where there are 33 billion tons of estimated coal reserves. Last year, 158 million tons of coal was produced in the state and much of the revenue generated from that production flows up the corporate ladder. Massey is a $3 billion corporation and a political powerhouse in the state. It is West Virginia’s largest employer and CEO Don Blankenship, whose total compensation for 2008 topped $11 million, doles out hefty checks to local, state and national political figures.
Half of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Each time Americans flip on a light switch, turn on a radio or power up a laptop, they are tapping into a vast, largely coal-powered energy infrastructure. On average, Americans each consume 20 pounds of coal per day. That the United States has the world’s largest coal reserves means that dislodging coal from future energy production will be a sustained struggle.
Back on Coal River Mountain, Massey’s blasting is occurring just 200 feet from a coal slurry filled with millions of gallons of toxic sludge. This situation evokes memories of the December 2008 coal slurry disaster in Tennessee, when an impoundment burst at the Kingston Power Plant. Twelve homes were buried and 300 acres flooded by 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. In 1972, 125 people were killed in Buffalo Creek, W. Va., when an impoundment burst, unleashing a 20-foot-high wave of coal sludge.
Massey has its own history of coal slurry disasters. In 2000, an impoundment owned by the Martin County Coal Company, a Massey subsidiary, failed near Inez, Ky., releasing 250 million gallons of sludge. Today, Massey manages one of West Virginia’s largest slurries, the 2.8-billion-gallon Shumate impoundment, which is carved out of a mountainside perched above the Marsh Fork Elementary School.
Massey’s dynamiting of Coal River Mountain has attracted international media attention, which may bring increased scrutiny of the company and the practice of mountaintop removal mining. Yet, with each day, the likelihood that Coal River Mountain might represent a turning point in U.S. energy production becomes more and more a dream reduced to dust.
Robert S. Eshelman has written for Abu Dhabi’s The National, In These Times, The Nation and tomdispatch.com.