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A "Just" Transition
“Economic development is of the utmost importance, but concern for the well being of citizens is a priority. This wind farm could save local communities, people's lives, and our way of life, while also bringing new economic development to the area.
This idea is an excellent alternative, and maybe the only alternative for our lands which are being permanently destroyed. This is a major change in our history. We are setting a pattern for the rest of the world to follow in that there are other alternatives to depleting fossil fuels, and that can guarantee that generations to come will have a sustainable future here in the heart of coal country...
What better place than Coal River Mountain for this to happen.” – Chuck Nelson, Glen Daniel, WV
The Expansion of Mountaintop Removal
For over a century, the rest of the United States has grown and prospered, largely on the backs of loggers and coal miners in Appalachia. The Mountaineers of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have given their labor and their lives to provide the resources and energy for our nation to grow to the size, comfort and power status we currently experience and "enjoy" today. For the last three decades, our condition has been maintained thanks to the expansion of perhaps the worst social and environmental injustice to occur in the modern United States -- Mountaintop removal coal mining.
[Photo Courtesy of Rory McIlmoil]
Mountaintop removal coal mining has been in practice since the late 1960s, but it wasn't until after the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990 that it truly expanded to its current size and scope. The neglect of the pressures to expand MTR mining that would result from the Clean Air Act when it was passed allowed coal companies to more or less get permitted for MTR mines at almost at will. Over the course of merely a decade, the amount of coal produced in WV from MTR grew nearly ten-fold, and surface mining as a proportion of coal production in the southern counties reached over 50%.
[You can download a report detailing the expansion of MTR and its impacts here, under the heading "Environmental Justice and Pollution"]
One of the main issues in relation to the permitting of MTR mines was that the state Department of Environmental Protection - which is also in charge of permitting the mines (seems contradictory) - was not required to take the cumulative environmental and community impacts into account when deciding to approve a permit or not. If they had been required to do so, hundreds of MTR permits would have been denied. Since they didn't, MTR began having a greater and greater impact on local residents and on the surrounding environment.
Now, MTR has reached a critical stage where a wide swath running northeast to southwest from southwestern Virginia, through southern West Virginia and into eastern Kentucky, has been almost completely destroyed, and so the struggle to preserve the remaining mountains and natural resources is as important as ever. What is critical is that any future opportunities for economic development will not require any more "flat land" than has already been created due to strip-mining. There is enough flat land already, over 1.2 million acres of it. Future development opportunities will rely on the sustainable use of the remaining resources, and on the restoration of the lands and waters that have been impacted by mountaintop removal.
In other words, any viable opportunities for economic development and diversification in the coalfields of Central Appalachia will by default require a permanent cessation and ban of all mountaintop removal coal mining.
After over a century of oppression, exploitation and economic impoverishment at the hands of the coal industry, it is time for local, state and national leaders to shift their attention toward transitioning the Appalachian coalfields away from MTR and make Appalachia a leader in the development of a new, green energy economy. Coal is no longer necessary in order to "Keep the Lights On."
Coalfield residents deserve to be on the forefront of revitalizing our economy, and they deserve to be the beneficiaries of our economic progress, rather than the ones left behind. It is time to stop pandering to coal interests and neglecting the impacts of our electricity consumption on the citizens and mountains of Appalachia. It is time to help Appalachia transition to a Just and Sustainable future, structured with a sensitivity to, and directed by, the desires of those living in the hollers and valleys.
“Our whole life – over 60 years – has been spent on this mountain. We have seen the mountains around us destroyed, and we do not want to see any more MTR mining.”
– Delbert and Julia Gunnoe, Rock Creek, WV
Preserving Coal River Mountain for the development of a wind farm would be a
good and symbolic place to start
But time is short for this transition. So much has been destroyed already, and despite the coal industry claims that there are 250 years' worth of coal left in Appalachia, research has shown otherwise.
The truth is, the coal is quickly running out. As this happens, jobs in the coal industry will continue to decline, and more of Appalachia's communities and environment will be degraded. So its time to Just Transition Now!!
Five counties in southern WV account for 50% of all coal produced in the state, and over 70% of all coal produced in southern WV. These are Boone, Logan, Mingo, Raleigh and Kanawha. Aside from Raleigh County, each of these five counties has plenty of “flat land” available, due to surface mining, that could be used for economic devleopment.
Further, each of these counties has experienced a sharp decline in mine productivity (tons produced per miner-hour) since the late 90's. This has occurred even as coal production in each of the counties has shifted toward more surface mining, which should have resulted in increased productivity, further suggesting that southern WV coal is becoming less and less economical to mine, and may soon be too costly to produce. As this happens, there will be even more pressure to allow mountaintop removal, since it is the "cheapest" and easiest way to mine coal. What this means though, is that more and more land has to be destroyed every year in order to produce the same amount of coal as the year before.
Data for Raleigh County, West Virginia - where Coal River Mounain is situated - illustrate the declining trend in mine productivity. The following information shows that there are less than 20 years left of economically recoverable coal in Raleigh County. Indeed, Coal River Mountain may be one of the last places in the county that will produce any significant amount of coal, so if it is destroyed - and along with it, the existing wind resource - then there will be nothing left in the west end of Raleigh County for developing economic alternatives.
This first chart shows coal production trends in Raleigh County since 1983, and splits production according to mining type. As shown within the yellow circle, coal production in the county hit a peak in 1997 and hasn’t achieved that level of production since. Up until 2003, county coal production depended mostly on underground mining, and indeed, total production aligned with underground production almost precisely. Since 2003, however, underground production has continued to decline, while surface mining has expanded. Since 2005, surface mining has also experienced a small decline, and overall, surface mining has not been able to make up for the rapid loss in underground coal production.
The main point to take from this graph is that according to production trends, coal production in Raleigh County is facing a continuous decline, and the data do not suggest that a significant rebound is possible.This is illustrated by the heavier dependence on surface mining as coal reserves become harder to extract – indicating that the coal seams are getting thinner. This conclusion is supported by the third chart, which illustrates trends in mine productivity.
As this chart shows, coal mining employment in Raleigh County has experienced a loss of 1,640 jobs since 1983. The last true resurgence in mining employment was in 1996/1997, when employment reached nearly 1,400 miners. There is currently a possible resurgence in employment, but given production trends, this resurgence will not last long.
Since 2003, employment has been rising, at first due to a sharp increase in surface mining, but more recently due to a sharp increase in underground mining – even as underground mine production has continued to fall. Combined with the evidence provided by the production and productivity graphs, the Raleigh County workforce cannot rely on coal mining to sustain a significant level of employment for far into the future, for as economically recoverable coal reserves run out and the underground mining production levels continue to fall, there will be fewer and fewer jobs available related to coal mining in Raleigh County.
There are only so many locations within the county that can be surface mined, and once these have been mined, the coal will be gone, along with the employment opportunities and the coal-related tax revenues for the county. There are also only so many locations/mountains within the county that exhibit viable wind resources, and Coal River Mountain stands as the most prominent. Unlike coal mining, a wind farm on Coal River Mountain would provide stability in both employment and tax revenues.
National and global research on coal reserves indicate that mine productivity stands as a significant marker of the status of economically recoverable coal reserves. Declines in mine productivity – the tons of coal produced per miner – indicate that the coal seams being extracted are harder to extract, meaning that they are increasingly thinner and deeper. Using this information as an illustrative tool for Raleigh County, the chart above – in combination with the first chart showing absolute production trends - thus indicates that Raleigh County may be rapidly running out of coal.
Between 1997 and 2003, when total production was mostly aligned with underground mining production, coal production in Raleigh County declined, while at the same time, mine “productivity” declined just as rapidly, meaning that the pace at which production dropped was driven by either a subsequent decline in productivity or by a subsequent decline in the economic recoverability of the underground coal reserves.
What is most important to note however is that even the rapid increase in surface mining between 2004 and 2007 failed to halt the trend of declining productivity, which suggests that even the surface mines in Raleigh County are facing an uncertain future in terms of sustaining coal production. In other words, Raleigh County is running out of coal, and surface mining can act only as a short-term stop-gap, not as a solution.
It is time for Raleigh County to realize that the coal will soon run out, perhaps even within 15-20 years, and as that time approaches, the expansion of surface mining will only serve to further destroy the natural resources that the county and its citizens could benefit from far into the future.
For an economic comparison between Wind and MTR, and an argument as to why Coal River Mountain should be preserved for wind power and why Raleigh County should begin supporting the creation of a wind industry, see the Economic Comparison page within this theme.
"Boom and Bust"? Or Everything "Just"?
Another reason for transitioning the Appalachian coalfields to a more diverse and sustainable economy is because coal doesn't provide the economic stability the communities and residents need to get out of poverty. The coal economy is marked by cycles of severe "booms" and "busts," based on the cyclical demand for coal and the volatility of coal prices. These cycles are even worse when the national economy struggles like it is right now (May 2009). Since the beginning of 2009, West Virginia alone has lost over 2,000 coal miners to unemployment due to the shutting down of mines - both underground mines and strip-mines. That amounts to over 10% of coal mining jobs being lost in a span of four months.
Combine the impoverishing nature of a dependence on coal with the increasing costs to human health and the environment from mountaintop removal coal mining, and you get a region that is rapidly losing any hope for a future beyond coal. That future is still possible, and renewable energy development such as wind power offers one strong and real opportunity for realizing a new and better economy in Appalachia, and for preserving the culture and traditions of local residents.
[Resident of Colcord, WV pointing at an apple orchard on top of Coal River Mountain that has been around for over 70 years, and that local residents hike to every summer to collect fresh apples for eating, making pie or making apple butter. This orchard would be destroyed by the proposed mountaintop removal mining operations. Photo Courtesy of Rory McIlmoil]
A wind farm on Coal River Mountain - just as any wind farm - would help preserve the Appalachian culture, and would leave open the opportunity for other industries and other economic models to be developed. Opportunities such as the creation of a regional market for handcrafted goods and locally grown produce, for instance. Or opportunities for a sustainable timber industry, or a non-timber forest products market. The expansion of the tourism industry is also still possible, and can be realized with the restoration of the lands and rivers that have been impacted by coal extraction. Land restoration is another industry that should be created, and funded by a greater taxation on coal, which would help bring some of the wealth back to the region.
There are vast opportunities for restoring the coalfields and for developing alternative economic models based on the use of local knowledge and the sustainable use of the land - two things that go hand in hand in the mountains. The time to begin creating that Appalachia is now though, and the first step is to bring an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.