Thursday, February 7, 2008

Connecting the Dots

Hear about environmental impact of 'mountaintop removal' tonight
By David Quick
The Post and Courier
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Name the worst environmental disaster in United States history.

I bet you guessed the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez, which spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound and beyond. It was a national tragedy that even the most ardent of anti-environmentalists couldn't deny.

But I bet you didn't know, or perhaps didn't remember, another tragedy that took place just over seven years ago in Martin County in Kentucky.

It involved 300 million gallons of coal slurry — a thick, puddinglike waste from mining operations — spilling out of a reservoir and flooding the land, polluting rivers, killing everything in streams for 100 miles and destroying property in Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern West Virginia.

The slurry, which contains hazardous chemicals such as arsenic and mercury, is the byproduct of yet another multifaceted environmental tragedy that's been taking place since the 1970s and continues into this era of energy volatility.

It's called mountaintop removal.

The process involves a clear-cut of diverse, hardwood forests. Coal companies then blow up the top 600 to 800 feet of mountains to get to seams of coal. Leftover rock and debris are scraped into valleys and fill streams. Barren land, usually covered in grass seed native to Asia, then is prone to flooding and erosion. So far, about 300,000 acres of forest have been turned into barren grassland. And then there's the coal slurry.

So what does this have to do with Charleston?

According to, we get coal from some mines that use mountaintop removal. And at 7 p.m. today in Charleston, one man hopes to expose locals to the full cost of the process.

Coal, which we already tap to run power plants, has made headlines lately as Santee Cooper, citing a potential power shortage by 2013, proposes building a $1 billion coal-fired plant in the Pee Dee. Conservation groups oppose it, noting that coal plants are among the largest contributors of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Dave Cooper, a retired engineer who travels the country talking about mountaintop removal, will bring his "Mountaintop Removal Road Show" to the local Sierra Club. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be at the Medical University of South Carolina's Baruch Auditorium, 284 Calhoun St., Charleston.

Cooper does not want to abandon use of coal, but rather just stop the practice of mountaintop removal. As you may imagine, he's been called an "ecoterroist" who wants to take away jobs from people in some of the poorest counties in the United States.

"I'm not against jobs," says Cooper. "I just think mountaintop removal is incredibly short-sighted. ... Underground mining is less damaging and involves more manpower."

He noted that since the increase of mechanization and mountaintop removal, mining jobs in West Virginia have gone from about 120,000 in 1960 to fewer than 15,000 now.

So what are we supposed to do?

First, Cooper urges people to take energy conservation seriously, from buying compact fluorescent bulbs to replacing appliances with ones that save the most energy. Second, contact Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., and ask him to support the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 2169) that would ban mountaintop removal.

I think most people who love to be active and outdoors care, to varying degrees, about the quality of the environment. But in our busy lives, we just don't connect all the dots. And sometimes we need sobering reminders of our impact on this special planet and what we can do to lessen that impact.

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