Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Sufferings

President Obama recently toured the Gulf to see firsthand the massive oil spill that has been plaguing us for more than a month now. He also convened a long press conference about the spill. We see coverage of the spill at the top of the news, often accompanied by a live shot of the oil pumping out into the ocean from a camera situated a mile below the surface.

I can’t imagine the president doing a flyover of a mountaintop removal site, or holding a press conference about it. And I’ve certainly never seen a mountain blown up on national television—not even once, much less every morning on the Today show.

Yet I would venture to say that mountaintop removal (MTR) is as devastating as the oil spill in the Gulf.

I don’t mean to compare suffering. What I’m saying is actually the opposite of comparison: they’re equally as bad, yet everyone is outraged about the spill while very few people even know about MTR.

Both the oil spill and MTR are environmental, cultural, economic, and health disasters. Both are devastating an entire way of life.

Every time someone says that more than 100 miles of shoreline has been affected by the oil spill, I want to shout that at least 1, 500 miles of waterways have been lost forever in Appalachia.

Every time I think about the spill I also think of the pollution pumping into our creeks and rivers by way of MTR. I think of all the people in the fishing industry whose jobs are threatened by the spill, and then of all the hard-working Appalachians who can’t find a good-paying job besides the mines because we live in a mono-economy created and fostered by the coal industry. I think of how the spill could affect the Gulf so badly that the region’s fishing industry could be wiped out. Immediately I think of how mountaintop removal is hurting all the industries in Appalachia, particularly timber and tourism. New economy doesn’t want to come into a place that has been turned into a war zone with pollution, constant blasting, and intimidation.

Recently a friend of mine pointed out that “we’re witnessing the death of the Gulf.” It’s a heartbreaking prospect, but one that seems true. As of this writing, we’ve been witnessing that for forty-four days. Our president recently said this about the spill: “Every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people…, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us.” Couldn’t he say the same about MTR, which assaults all that we have in common, namely the air and the water, as author and environmentalist Erik Reese has pointed out? We’ve been witnessing the death of the mountains for much, much longer. If you trace it back to when mountaintop removal started, about 30 years ago, that’d be 10, 950 days. A lot more than 44.

Most of the people who live on the Gulf are not wealthy. Those in the fishing industry are much like our underground miners: hard-working, determined, and very proud of their jobs. The big difference is that since the Gulf is not caught up in a mono-economy, we actually have fishermen on the news complaining about the oil companies. Here in Appalachia, miners fear they will lose their jobs and we’ve been taught by the industry that if we say anything at all against coal, we’re downright unpatriotic.

Sadly, the lack of outrage over MTR may boil down to images and quick definitions. It’s easy to turn the spill into a quick sound bite (Oil is pumping into the ocean) and not so easy to do the same with MTR, which is a much more complicated issue; for one thing, it’s hard to convince people that to be against MTR does not mean one is against miners. Most of the MTR opponents count miners as one of the reasons they’re in this fight to begin with.

And there is that dramatic, sickening image that is easily captured (the oil pumping into the ocean) and put on the morning news shows. A camera can’t quite capture the scope of MTR. Even seeing it in person can’t really do it justice. The only way one can truly take in the devastation is to do a fly-over, so the sheer magnitude of it can be realized. Which is another reason why Obama should do a fly-over of Appalachia, the same way he’s done in the Gulf.

The major difference between the spill and MTR is that the spill was a preventable accident, while MTR is not only intentional, but also sanctioned by our government. Those who are trying to stop it are being called things like “greeniacs,” “atheists,” and being compared to Osama Bin Laden by Massey CEO Don Blankenship. T-shirts sold at my local flea market encourage people to “Save a miner’s job: Shoot a tree-hugger.”

I appreciate the attention Obama is paying to the Oil Spill. I especially appreciate that he took time out of his press conference to talk about this being a wake-up call, a time to start thinking about renewable energy. It’s great to hear a president talk about that. I especially appreciate how much better this administration is on the issue than the last one was. We actually have an EPA that is doing something now, such as actually examining permits before rubber-stamping them.

That’s great, but it’s time to do more about it. Obama is doing a lot of great talk but it’s time to start walking the walk.

It’s time to start talking about sustainable jobs for miners who are losing theirs to machines on MTR sites. It’s time to try to salvage these devastated MTR sites into the only thing they’re really usable for now: wind farms. It’s time that legislators started talking to the president about the first renewable energy jobs going to miners.

Most of all, it’s time to see mountaintop removal as being as devastating an environmental disaster as the spill. Because it is.

Notes:

1. Even the coal industry’s own website shows that more than 30,000 miners jobs have been lost in Kentucky alone since the advent of MTR in the late 70s. http://www.coaleducation.org/ky_coal_facts/

2. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McQuaid has written an excellent overview of how the new EPA has become more effective. http://politifi.com/news/Coal-Baron-Blankenship-Calls-Critics-And--402023.html

3. http://politifi.com/news/Coal-Baron-Blankenship-Calls-Critics-And--402023.html

4. For more on intimidation and the complexities of MTR, see this piece in the Washington Post: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/19/AR2008041900941.html

5. For more on Erik Reese and the assault on the commons (air, water, mountains, etc.), go here: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4809/