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Almost Heaven, West Virginia — land of putt-putt golf courses?

September 7th, 2009 · 1 Comment

“Almost heaven, West Virginia …” An anthem immediately recognizable to millions. Yet, an anthem under ever mounting threat. West Virginia, as with much of the world, faces a clear choice between an ever-dirtier fossil fuel path and moving toward a prosperous, climate friendly economy.

While this is a global challenge, in West Virginia the choices are quite stark and, well, quite immediate:

* Mountaintop removal (MTR) or

* Wind farms on the tops of mountain ridges and within valleys

What is Mountain Top Removal?

MTR “has been called strip mining on steroids.” MTR is a path for getting at coal veins with the greatest ‘efficiency’ and cost-effectiveness. (That is, from the perspective of the company and totally ignoring ‘external’ costs not paid by the company.) MTR changes the very topography of the land and “should be more accurately named: mountain range removal. ”

That is, within a definition of “cost” that externalizes tremendous costs to others than the mining MTR “annihilates ecosystems, transforming some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world into biologically barren moonscapes.” And, of course, in the pursuit of perpetuating a polluting energy system that is the major contributor to CO2 emissions and the poisoning of the planet.

Wind farms, however, seek to use those very mountain tops (and the valleys: in many cases, the best wind is actually within a valley/gap, as the wind rushes down what is, in essence, a funnel) to produce CO2 free energy. Pursue MTR and you are left not just with a devastated ecosystem that is less able to support future economic activity and not just with ever more coal pollution, but you have a terrain that is less conducive to renewable energy use.

We often hear about how coal mining is critical due to jobs. Well, West Virginia has seen coal-mining jobs fall from 120,000 to 15,000 due to automation. ANd, well, mountaintop removal really is designed quite specifically to take the miner out of the mine. You could say that it does the same thing to the job market that it does to the mountains.

According to Appalachian Voices,

The employment benefits of wind development as compared to coal mining are substantial for nearby communities. Development of a 229 turbine wind site on Coal River Mountain would directly create between 200 and 250 jobs per year for the first 2 years of construction and would support more than 50 permanent jobs in the area – potentially in perpetuity. Surface mining would directly create between 50 and 150 jobs per year for about 14 years while the mines were active, after which the land would be unsightly, unstable, and of little use for economic development in the forseeable future.

Clean energy … Cleaner air … more jobs … local revenue … and less impact on the natural environment …

At this time, there is a battle under way for defining West Virginia’s future. The Coal River Valley remains relatively pristine in the face of all of the MTR throughout West Virginia. Traditional fossil-fuel energy community and coal companies look at that pristine terrain and see “opportunity”. (Think, I must say, Once-Ler from Dr Seuss’ book The Lorax.) Yet, others look to this situation and see an opportunity to carve a new future for West Virginia and its citizens.

Rather than extracting coal and leaving behind devastated environment and devastated communities, these people see the opportunities for wind farms that will provide clean energy and a revenue stream for local communities for the indefinite future (both in terms of jobs building/maintaining the wind turbines and from royalties/payments for the generated electricity).

West Virginia, it citizens, its leaders seem to face a clear choice:

  • Quick, ‘easy’ profits to leave behind a devastated and flattened West Virginia that John Denver would never recognize;
  • An investment for the long-term that will enrich West Virginians, protect the environment (both local and global), and leave behind a terrain that would remain Almost Heaven
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