Category Archives: Mountaintop removal

Posts relating to mountaintop removal mining

Choosing risks for future generations

In some ways, choosing not to pursue unconventional fossil fuels like the oil sands, coal from moutaintop removal mining, and shale gas is imposing a risk on those in the future. It will be up to them to find energy sources capable of powering the kind of lifestyle they want. There is no guarantee that it will be possible to do everything we do now using sustainable forms of energy. In addition to becoming more efficient, they may simply have to make do with less.

That being said, choosing to exploit unconventional fossil fuels is still akin to throwing your child into the deep end of the pool in order to teach them to swim. Instead of being pressed to learn how to use energy more efficiently, develop sustainable energy sources, and perhaps adopt a less energy intensive lifestyle, future generations in a world where we choose to exploit unconventional fossil fuels will be pressed to learn how to deal with dangerous and severe climate change, and all the unpredictable consequences that will accompany it. In addition to that, they will still need to learn how to live without fossil fuels once those last especially dangerous reserves are exhausted.

We cannot guarantee that future generations will be able to enjoy the luxuries that we do, in the form of things like cheap intercontinental travel. What we can do is choose which set of risks an challenges they will confront. It seems far more ethical to leave unconventional fossil fuels buried and challenge them to find alternatives than to burn those fuels and challenge future generations to live with a radically changing climate.

Report Back: CJM Workshop on “Landed Resistance: How Land Rights Struggles Fight Climate Change”

Today I had the privilege of attending a workshop put on by Climate Justice Montreal at McGill University on the issues of land, resistance, and climate change. The workshop facilitated active participation to draw out the participants own ideas of their own name, lineage and family history, and encouraged them to compare that history with the narrative structures “Canadian History” is given in the state school system. The power of narrative was stressed – the idea that society is not made up of matter or even institutions but primarily of stories which we tell ourselves, tell our children, and are told by those who have something to gain by our believing them. The framework of narrative power enabled the group to criticize their own ideas of their own history, and reclaim a more genuine grasp on the relationship between their personal history and the social narratives which structure the way that history is expressed in dominant social stories.

To give a specific example, the idea of the “hard working farmers who came here because they wanted to” was critiqued. The example of Irish immigration to make this case is particularly poignant: Ireland was depopulated in the 19th century through a purposeful genocide, in order to encourage immigration to North America. In other words – many Irish immigrants did not come “to seek a better life in a new land”, but because their old life had been strategically destroyed by a colonialist power. Ireland itself was a feudal state where the British had installed Ulster-Scots as the ruling people – to dominate and oppress the Irish while themselves being second-class compared to their English masters. The Irish who then arrived in Canada were largely directed towards the United States, because social darwinist theory of the time asserted that Eastern Europeans were harder workers – and Canadian colonial services preferred to install Polish and German immigrants as prairie farmers.

Continue reading

Zizek and the paradoxical position of activism today

Activism today seems caught in a stalemate with itself. While the Battle of Seattle founded a generation of direct-action, anti-organizational chaotic intervention against neo-liberal world government meetings, they’ve failed to gain mass public support. For reasons which have been understood for decades, the media is excellent at not getting messages through which are damaging to corporate power in general, media organizations themselves being private tyrannies. And since liberals are scared to death of any acts which might provoke disorder (they are followers of Burke rather than Rousseau), there is little hope in convincing them through rational argument (although I’ll continue to try). But on the other hand, purely peaceful protests seem increasingly ineffective, and geared towards the personal satisfaction of those involved, rather than social or political transformation. Zizek holds something like this position with regards the 2003 anti-war in Iraq rallies:

The massive demonstrations against the US attack on Iraq back in 2003 were exemplary of a strange symbiotic relationship, parasitism even, between power and the anti-war protesters. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protestors saved their beautiful souls – they had made it clear that they did not agree with the government’s policy on Iraq – while those in power could calmly accept it, even profit from it: not only did the protests do nothing to prevent the (already decided upon) attack on Iraq, paradoxically, they even provided additional legitimaization for it, best rendered by none of than George Bush, whose reaction to the mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London was: “You see, this is what we are fighting for: so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!”

Quite clearly, Bush had no interest in allowing the popular demonstration to affect his government’s policy. The public are allowed to have their say precisely because their say is meaningless. Compare this to a dictatorship – this kind of huge public display is not allowed (and is in fact violently suppressed), not because a dictator hates free speech, but because in that context free speech is actually a danger to his power. In the US, the overwhelming mores of civil obedience means the state does not have to worry that such a huge public demonstration will move towards the kind of insurrection which would enable actually changing the government’s policy.

Continue reading

Legislative resistance to mountaintop removal in the US

On his blog, Al Gore wrote recently about legislation being advanced by US Senators Lamar Alexander and Ben Cardin to reclassify mining waste as a pollutant, and making it illegal to dump the waste from mountaintop removal mining in the valleys nearby. Just by requiring companies to cart off these wastes and dispose of them in a more responsible way, the senators expect that the legislation would make mountaintop removal mining no longer commercially viable.

If so, this reveals just how illusory the economic benefits from the practice are. It only makes sense when you ignore all of the harmful secondary effects and focus exclusively on the revenue arising from the coal. If operators of mountaintop removal mines had to pay for the damage they are causing to air, water, habitat, and climate, the industry would almost certainly cease to exist.

The situation is akin to the scene in The Simpsons where Homer cooks a large amount of bacon so that he can sell the grease. To him, the revenue from selling the grease seems like a profit, because he ignores the cost of buying the bacon. The situation with the negative effects of mountaintop removal mining is a bit more insidious, however, since the revenues from selling the coal go to one group of people, while the damage arising from the mining largely harms others. It is like when thieves steal copper wiring from buildings: they get a small amount of cash, but it costs the building owner much more to repair the damage that was done.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is also planning regulatory changes that will restrict this destructive practice.

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining: An American Tragedy

Mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining is one of America’s worst environmental crimes. Every day, across Appalachia, the coal industry literally blows the tops off the mountains: clear-cutting forests, wiping out natural habitats and poisoning rivers and drinking water. Not only are these mountains lost forever, but the heritage and the health of families across the region are being sacrificed. For a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, the tradeoff does not add up.

Rainforest Action Network is partnering with a community-based movement from Appalachia to compel the Environmental Protection Agency and other key agencies to ban the practice.

Impacts to Mountains and Forests

MTR is a mining practice where explosives are used to remove the tops of mountains and expose the small seams of coal that lie beneath. It is estimated the explosive equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb is detonated every week in Appalachia. Once blasted, the earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.

Before mining can begin, tracts of deciduous forests are clearcut (often burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills). These unique hardwood forests are some of the most biologically diverse in North America.

Impacts to Drinking Water and Human Health

MTR mining poses significant threats to water quality in Appalachia, despite the objectives and requirements of the Clean Water Act designed to protect our nation’s precious water supplies. According to a 2005 environmental impact statement, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried or contaminated.

After blasting has occurred, waste from mining operations is systematically dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams. This waste then releases toxic metals, killing life in streams and polluting ground water. Health problems such as cancer, liver and kidney disease, and skin rashes have been found in correlation with people who drink water from wells contaminated by coal mining. This problem was exacerbated in 2002 when the Bush Administration changed rules in the Clean Water Act, allowing waste material to be considered “fill”, effectively legalizing the dumping of toxic mining waste directly into Appalachian waterways.

Once coal is extracted, it is then washed and treated, resulting in waste water called coal sludge, a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, selenium and chromium. Billions of gallons are then stored in vast, unlined impoundments or injected for storage in abandoned underground-mines.

Impoundments are often held in place by mining debris or earthen dams, making them unstable. Sludge dams have been known to fail. In October 2000, residents of Martin County, Kentucky suffered 306 million gallons of slurry entering their water supply. The disastrous spill was over 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.

Mitigation and Regulation Efforts

A recent peer-reviewed report in the journal Science concluded that mountaintop mining has serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address.

While robust reclamation efforts are required for mountaintop removal sites, in practice, most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed. Attempts to reclaim the land after MTR coal-mining operations generally result in abandoned, unmanaged and unproductive scrublands. Clear cutting and topsoil loss disrupts the absorption of rainfall, which has resulted in severe flash floods.

Impacts on Jobs and Clean Energy Opportunities

Coal companies use MTR mining methods because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while significantly reducing the number of workers required compared to conventional methods. The coal-bearing counties of Appalachia are some of the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that some of the greatest wealth is being extracted from them.

The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. We must embrace a clean energy future for our economic survival as well as our environmental and public health. Diversification of the Appalachian economy is now more important than ever.

Appalachia has a wealth of clean energy resources that can be developed to provide new jobs and tax revenues, including wind, solar, low-impact hydro, and sustainable biomass. This development can especially support rural areas, those hardest hit by the declining economy. With political and financial leadership we could transition Appalachia from coal country to clean energy country.

The Way Forward

Polls demonstrate that most Americans oppose MTR removal coal mining.

RAN is demanding a moratorium on all new MTR permits, reversal of the Bush Administration rules changes to the stream buffer zone and fill rules, and strict enforcement of the Clean Water Act for existing MTR operations.