When I talked to Appalachians in eastern Kentucky last month, coal was a big topic on everyone's mind (the other big topic was prescription drug addiction). As someone who tries to stay up on social and environmental issues, I was taken aback by how little I knew on the subject of the coal industry. But over and over again I was told that coal is the source for over 50% of our nation's energy. Several different people told us, "Every time you switch on a light, someone at the other end mined coal so you could do that. People don't think about that." In eastern Kentucky, the people have a complicated relationship with King Coal, because it is the industry that keeps the region from sinking completely into poverty. Then again, almost all of the money made from the plunder of Appalachian resources like coal and timber has left the region. People there have problems with the way coal is mined, but for many people coal mining is their livelihood.
I had brought to my experience a sort of vague idea of coal as one of the bad sources of energy, but I had never given it much thought. Over the course of my time in Kentucky I learned more than I ever imagined I would about coal. I learned about the beautiful process through which coal developed over periods of time that make the span of human existence seem like a blip. I learned about various forms of coal mining, and the fact that some coal companies are basically playing Jenga with mountains - digging out tunnels closer and closer together until the pillars holding the roof up start to buckle and everyone high-tails it out before the mountain just collapses on itself. I saw a mining operation where the guy running in charge was doing his best to mine responsibly an sustainably. When I asked him what he wanted me to tell the people back home he said, "We're not all bad guys. We're doing the best we can, and maybe coal mining isn't the best thing, but its what we have until we can figure out something else."
And I learned about mountain top removal mining. Rather than going through the cost and effort of underground mining, they blow the top off of a mountain, dig the coal out, and push the debris into the valleys. This way of mining is cheaper and takes far fewer people than other forms of mining. Some of the negative impacts on the community are destruction of property, pollution of the water, scarring of the landscape, job loss, and disruption of the natural water flow. We drove through a town that doesn't have running water part of the year because the blasts nearby broke the water table. And then there's the issue of sludge ponds, which I also talked about in a previous post. The most frustrating thing I learned is that for $1-2 dollars more per ton, coal could be mined and cleaned in ways that created more jobs, better preserved the mountains themselves, and did not leave behind sludge. According to the US EIA, the current price of coal per ton in Central Appalachia is around $59.
Of course there's no such thing as clean coal. I am certainly an advocate of developing renewable energy sources - after all, once coal is gone, its gone. But given the fact that coal still accounts for half of our energy, and is a main industry in Appalachian America, we can't get rid of it just yet. Unfortunately the problem has been completely oversimplified in the public and largely overlooked in the public debate. The debate is framed in a way that forces you to choose "Drill, baby, drill" or "Coal is Evil" when really a better option would be to try to mine coal in a way that does the least harm and creates the most benefit for the communities, while trying to come up with other sources of energy for the country and new industries for the coal mining communities.
And then there's the fact that most Americans don't even see this complex problem playing out. We really don't think about coal when we turn our lights on and off (or leave our computers on all the time). The coal industry is allowed to exploit Appalachian communities because the majority of the country doesn't even know that this is happening. Fortunately, some of these issues are gaining a little more visibility. MTR has been popping up in the news and even on the Colbert Report recently. There was an article in the Washington Post yesterday about the complicated politics in Appalachian communities that touched on coal-related issues.
My hope is that as more people become aware of the complexity of the coal problem, we can stand in solidarity with the people in Appalachian communities as our country struggles to create jobs so that communities can thrive. We can factor the experiences of the Appalachian people in our conversation about how to use and provide energy. When I asked people in Kentucky how we can stand in solidarity with them - no matter what their opinions about the coal industry were - the answer was overwhelmingly consistent. Use less energy. Turn off the lights. Unplug your computer. Think about how much electricity you're using, because people are working hard to power your life.
There are plenty of ways to stay engaged with this issue - writing letters to representatives, finding out about organizations like Mountain Justice and watching films from organizations like AppalShop. But if you never do any of those things, I pray that you will think about the people in coal mining communities every time you turn on the lights.
NPR on MTR
"Coal Comfort" on the Colbert Report
Fabulous short movie on MTR: