Energy: The Good News, The Continuing Struggle

Boston Globe
Boston Globe
First the good news. The Boston Globs reports this week that Massachusetts’ largest utilities have signed long-term contracts for wind generated energy from six wind farms in Maine and New Hampshire at a mere 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Which is actually cheaper than electricity from coal [10 cents/kwh], nuclear [11 cents/kwh] and solar [14 cents/kwh].

The utilities – National Grid, Northeast Utilities and Unitil Corp. – are together purchasing 565 megawatts of electricity, enough to power ~170,000 homes. The Cape Wind offshore project in Nantucket Sound is expected to serve more homes overall when it is fully on-line, but the price per kwh will be higher. As more wind projects get built, the price should even out in the face of competition, so we may all look forward to something eventually cheaper even than natural gas. Which at 6 cents per kwh is now the least expensive electricity generation technology, but that will inevitably go up as gas reserves dwindle and environmental regulation puts a crimp in the destructive practice of fracking.

Wind generation has tremendous potential in the most populous regions of the country, including the Megalopolis corridor from D.C. to Boston, and in Texas and California. The entire Great Plains is ripe for wind as well as solar, and solar technologies are enjoying a hefty level of research funding to see if its costs can be brought into competitive line with wind and hydro. New storage technologies for all renewable sources are also being researched and developed apace, while coal plants are being shut down and new ones aren’t getting built.

Now for the less-than great news. Confusing and contradictory signals from the Obama administration about approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta through the heartland has a consortium of 25 environmental groups signing on to a letter to President Obama urging rejection of the project. Tar sands oil is the most environmentally damaging form of petroleum to capture and refine, making the pipeline a serious threat to efforts to battle global warming.

Groups signing on are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Action, CREDO, 350.Org, Public Citizen, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sierra Club and others. For years groups of indigenous people in Canada and the U.S., farmers and ranchers from Nebraska to Texas and citizen activists as well as environmental organizations have protested the project.

Those of us who have chosen to live our lives in such a way as to serve as example of a more aware and involved partnership with this home planet are not usually at the forefront of civil actions pushing for better government and corporate policies related to energy, but we do need to increase our outreach to those who are on the front lines. Please do check in on groups in and near your area, maybe attend some gatherings or subscribe to newsletters, offer what you can offer to help support this important work. Even if it’s some fresh organic food, a nice place to hold a planning meeting, or an offer of shelter for participants from far flung places, we need to be part of the needed changes on as many levels as possible.

Who knows? There’s even a chance you could get to know some local/semi-locals who would love nothing better than to put in a little time on your project here and there, at planting or harvest time, maybe help with some very cool energy projects they could then use as inspiration to others along their travels and among their contacts. The real changes happen at home, not in D.C. Which seems always to be playing catch-up with what the people have already figured out for themselves. Changes that need a community’s commitment and support and labor are best done with the help of a community. So let’s get plugged in!

The Mountains Cry: A Vibrant Voice Passes On

Mountains_CryThis blog has covered many environmental issues, perhaps the one dearest to the heart has been the astounding destruction wrought by King Coal on the beautiful, peaceful, ancient mountains of southern Appalachia in the name of profit: Mountaintop Removal. The [West Virginia] State Journal reports that long-time environmental activist and tireless mountainkeeper Larry Gibson died September 9th at the age of 66 while working at Kayford Mountain, his family home in Raleigh County. Larry was born at Kayford Mountain, and spent the last decades working to protect Kayford and all of these majestic mountains from King Coal and the rampant destruction of mountaintop removal.

Larry Gibson traveled across the country to speak at schools, churches and other public gatherings to spread his simple gospel about these mountains: “Love ‘em or leave ‘em – just don’t destroy them.” Gibson established the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation in 2004 to support mountain communities threatened by King Coal and its mountain-shearing machinery, and the family requests donations to the Foundation in lieu of other expressed condolences. A private funeral is planned, with a public memorial service to be announced later.

One of the most heartfelt remembrances is from Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign, entitled The Mountains Weep for Larry Gibson. Rest in peace, friend.

Please see the post The Last Mountain: A Call to Action for many more links to coverage of Mountaintop Removal Mining in this and other blogs, educational resources and activist groups.

Old King Coal, a Filthy Old Soul

Old King CoalBack in June I posted a disgusted ode to King Coal’s most outrageous method of extracting the combustible black rock from these most beautiful and abundant Appalachians. In that post, Desperate for Fossil Fuels, I described the environmental horror known as “Mountaintop Removal” and offered a bunch of useful links for further information, environmental coalitions and direct actions aimed at stopping this crazy rape of the earth.

Just six months later on December 22, an earthen dam gave way at a coal ash holding pond in Kingston, Tennessee, spilling more than a billion gallons of the sludge into a neighborhood as well as into the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers. Three homes were completely destroyed, many others within the 300 acre sludge zone had to be evacuated, dead fish littered the banks of the rivers and the people of eastern Tennessee as well as the rest of the nation suddenly became familiar with what this waste product of burning coal contains. It’s not pretty.

Concentrated in this nasty toxic waste are poisons and heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury, nickel, vanadium, beryllium, cadmium, barium, chromium, copper, molybdenum, zinc, lead and selenium. There are also concentrations of radioactive elements including uranium, thorium and radium. These substances readily leach from the ash into water, and the rivers and wells around the spill site have tested high in arsenic and other pollutants – residents have been warned to drink only bottled water until they hear otherwise.

Yet despite the fact that there is a toxic load in the millions of pounds of ash produced in America every year from burning coal, the EPA does not regulate it as toxic waste and some states don’t regulate it at all. Thus despite known problems with retention of the sludge, this waste product is actually considered to be a valuable commercial product all by itself!

There are actually marketers of coal fly ash that do nothing but re-sell the stuff for use in concrete and cement, as structural landfill and mine reclamation, as base for roads, for making bricks, and even as “inert filler” in agricultural fertilizer (along with waste from other industries, like steel production). Is it any wonder that our once-fertile plains now need ever-increasing amounts of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and genetically engineered crop cultivars in order to grow anything at all?

Those of us who are committed to lovingly managing our land and producing as much of our own sustenance as possible using the most organic of tried-and-true methods can use the sad experience of the people in eastern Tennessee as an opportunity to learn more about what ‘standard practices’ our rural neighbors may be using that could threaten our family’s health and livelihood. Large farms upstream of our homesteads could be using industrial waste-based fertilizers that will leach contaminants into our water sources as easily as their in-season chemical sprays will.

While arsenic in the water is a serious concern for our drinking water, irrigation water and livestock water, heavy metals can wreak terrible havoc as well. Round-Up doesn’t contain heavy metals, your neighbor may think he’s being responsible. So he probably needs to know what’s in that fertilizer too, as he may be wondering why his crops do so poorly and his livestock are so sickly. Do your research, put your findings into an easy-to-read format, and present them at future meetings of your extension classes or community farm planning groups. Pass them out at the farmer’s market and contact environmental groups in your area who are or should become involved in dealing with these issues.

This earth is our only home. Our homesteads – our beloved little corners of earth – are our pleasure, our pride, our freedom and our example to the world. If we won’t protect and defend them, no one else will. So as we move into this hopeful new year with a new administration with a commitment to sustainable energy policies for the future, don’t let anybody fool you about “Clean Coal” – there is no such thing.

We can choose to go with clean, efficient, renewable energy sources. We can choose to diversify our production so that gigantic mega-watt plants aren’t necessary to supply our needs. We can choose to stop raping and pillaging our planet for the short-term gain for the wealthy few, while ignoring basic livability for our children and grandchildren’s future. Get mad, get involved, get busy!

Desperate for Fossil Fuels
“Mountaintop Removal”
Coal Fly Ash
USGS: Radioactive Elements in Coal and Fly Ash
Fear in the Fields: How Hazardous Wastes Become Fertilizer

Old King Coal vs. Reality

Patriot Coal,West Virginia, Feb. 13: A federal appeals court in Charleston, West Virginia, has ruled that the US Army Corps of Engineers may permit coal companies involved in the controversial and environmentally destructive practice of “Mountaintop Removal” mining to bypass the Clean Water Act rules in its permitting process.

The rules had required environmental impact studies and reviews prior to permitting the coal companies to blast the tops off ancient mountains and using the debris to fill in valleys, a practice that destroys mountain feeder streams, diminishes supply and pollutes the water supplies for towns and cities downstream. An excellent overview of the situation and local efforts to stem the tide of destruction can be found in this diary by Bruce Nilles on the political website Daily Kos.

One of the mountains immediately threatened by this ruling is Coal River Mountain, one of the last mountains still standing in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. A local coalition, Coal River Wind Farm has developed an excellent alternative to destroying the mountain and watershed that will return economic value to the area, jobs to the residents and power to the grid all at the same time. Do check them out and lend your voice to their efforts to convince WV state officials to choose alternatives to King Coal and the filth he leaves in his wake.

A new campaign is currently in the works between the Waterkeeper Alliance and environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to fight the ongoing destruction of Mountaintop Removal, to be called “The Dirty Lie.” Stay tuned for links and information here as soon as the website’s up and going.

North Carolina, Feb. 14: Meanwhile, efforts by environmentalists in North Carolina have been targeting the mighty behemoth Duke Energy and its CEO James Rogers to protest the building of yet another coal-fired power plant in the mountainous southwestern part of the state.Anti-coal activists in NC have also been holding the line in the state legislature against the purchase and burning of coal from Mountaintop Removal in any of the state’s coal-fired power plants and industries. The proposed restrictions were shelved again in the last session, but supporters are active to get a positive vote this year. Environmentalists in Georgia have introduced similar legislation to ban coal from this source, and in Ohio has suspended the building of new coal plants altogether.

So progress is being made even though Old King Coal is still trying as hard as he ever did to turn the whole world black. So stay tuned, concerned lovers of the land, we’ll be seeing a lot more about these battles in the near future, and all of them will need our support!


Is America Ready to Quit Coal?
Bill aims to outlaw coal mined by removing mountaintops
Georgia to Ban Mountaintop Removal Coal?
Coal River Wind Farm
Waterkeeper Alliance
Appeals court overrules new mountaintop mine rules