One West Virginia Coal Town's Fight for a Clean Energy Future

There's a mountain in West Virginia that's pretty soon to be destroyed. A whole mountain-one of the oldest mountains in the world,...

There's a mountain in West Virginia that's pretty soon to be destroyed. A whole mountain-one of the oldest mountains in the world, actually-that won't be a mountain anymore. It doesn't have to be this way. There are plenty of reasons-legal, economic, and moral reasons-why Coal River Mountain should stay a mountain. But sound reason doesn't have much to do with mountaintop removal coal mining. If so , the ridges of Coal River Mountain would be covered with wind turbines and not blasted flat by millions of tons of dynamite.This wind farm is the hope and goal of the folks behind Coal River Wind, a project that's probably the most important-and certainly the most symbolic-clean energy initiative in the country. But it doesn't look good right now. Lorelei Scarbro, who lives in a valley right next to Coal River Mountain and who organizes for both Coal River Wind and partner Coal River Mountain Watch, told me that they're on the defensive. Massey Energy has a couple of permits for massive chunks of Coal River Mountain's ridges and last Fall they started blasting on one. At the moment, the dynamite has been shelved as the EPA reviews Massey's permits.\n\n\n\nMountaintop removal is a shockingly destructive practice-essentially blowing the tops off of mountains to get at the coal seams beneath--something we might expect to frown upon from afar, as peaks get pulverized in China or some former Soviet state. But it's happening here in America-in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee-on a scale that's virtually unimaginable, laying waste to our national land heritage and ruining communities. Robert Kennedy Jr. has called MTR "the greatest environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation." Already, he mourns, the practice has "flattened the tops of 500 mountains, buried 2,000 miles of streams, devastated our country's oldest and most diverse temperate forests, and blighted landscapes famous for their history and beauty."Coal River Mountain stands stubborn and vulnerable today amidst this blight, a battleground between the dirty energy of the past and clean energy of the future. Between exploitation and opportunity-opportunity that is too often overlooked. Scarbro and her neighbors at Coal River Wind aren't simply fighting the destruction of their mountain-though they'd be entirely justified in doing so. "We're not just trying to stop something," Scarbro says , emphasizing that her organization's missions is twofold-to stop mountaintop removal and to rebuild sustainable communities. "I have a 6 year old granddaughter and I'm fighting to make sure that she has clean drinking water. I feel a sense of urgency to start rebuilding."So they've got a plan for Coal River Mountain's future that would do more for the local community and the county's coffers than strip mining ever could. Set aside for a moment the many health and social ills of MTR-the toxic drainages, the dusty air, the undrinkable tap water-and still the economic argument alone for Coal River Wind is compelling.A 2007 wind potential study found capacity for 328 megawatts of clean energy on Coal River Mountain, enough to power 70,000 West Virginian homes. The revenue would produce $1.7 million in property taxes that would benefit the local communities. That's over 50 times the $36,000-per-year that coal mining would generate in severance taxes, and the wind money wouldn't dry up when the coal runs out in an estimated 14 years. (The coal revenue itself flows immediately out of state.) A wind farm would also create at least 50 permanent jobs that also last long after the coal would disappear. Again, this isn't even to mention the external costs of public health and environmental quality.One economic study found that by factoring in such externalities-health expenses, environmental clean up costs, and lost resources on tourism and ginseng harvesting-the Massey mines would wind up costing the community $600 million over their brief lifespans. Coal River Wind has the potential to rewrite the economics of mountaintop removal.For Scarbro, the battle for Coal River Mountain is personal. "My husband spent 35 years as an underground coal miner before he died of black lung. I live in the house he built, on the property he loved. It borders Coal River Mountain." But whether we know it or not, we're all connected to mountaintop removal-through the electricity we use, through the toxic pollution that runs out of the Appalachians into the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, and through the carbon emissions released when cheap coal is burned. "This fight belongs to all of us," Scarbro urges. "It's not just mine and for my grandchildren, it's for yours and everybody else's. We all live downstream."Rendering courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.This post originally appeared on, as part of GOOD's collaboration with the Pepsi Refresh Project, a catalyst for world-changing ideas. Find out more about the Refresh campaign, or to submit your own idea today.
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