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An Author's Incredible Environmental Journey After a Coal Company Destroyed His Family's Ancestral Home and Land

After a strip-mining operation obliterated the author's family homestead, he set out on a 10-year journey to examine the staggering human and environmental costs of coal.

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We have seen the devastation of clear-cutting our nation's great forests and carbon sink of Appalachia and blowing up its oldest mountain range. We have met the casualties of absentee commerce; grieving parents who have lost loved ones to coal slurry-contaminated water; veterans and elderly who endure blasting, fly rock and silica dust; families who have seen their homes washed away in floods caused by erosion; streams poisoned with mining waste; boarded-up communities, strangled by a boom-and-bust single economy.

Whether we must turn to civil disobedience to halt the reckless and illegal blasting of mountaintop removal or the construction of new coal-fired plants, or lobby Congress to regulate coal ash and pass the Clean Water Protection Act--to end the dumping of coal waste into our waterways, and effectively halt mountaintop removal--or force bankers and lenders to stop funding dirty coal operations, I believe the movement must work toward a coal-free future.

TL: You write in the book, 'We all live in the coalfields now,' -- we are all part of the problem. If that's the case how do we try to begin fixing the problem? 

Coal is not cheap nor clean; coal has been killing us for over 200 years. The National Academy of Scientists totaled costs of coal at more than $62 billion in "external damages" to our health and lives. A West Virginia University report noted the coal industry "costs the Appalachian region five times more in early deaths than it provides in economic benefits."

According to James Hansen at the NASA Goddard Center, "Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. Our global climate is nearing tipping points." Given the reality of climate destabilization, and the fact that nearly 40 percent of our CO2 emissions erupt from coal-fired plants, we need to commit to a coal-free future if we are to survive as a planet -- and that begins in the coalfields. 

Coal mining, which provides 45 percent of our electricity, will not end tomorrow. But coalfield residents, like all Americans, deserve a road map for a feasible transition to clean-energy jobs -- including a Coal Miner's GI Bill for retraining and a massive reinvestment in sustainable economic development in coalfield communities -- before we reach a point of no return.

A "just transition" for the coalfields, of course, means more than rhetoric about green jobs--it will require not only a shift in massive investments and sustainable economic development, but a change in our long-standing policies that have allowed coal country to be the sacrifice zone for the nation.

Let me give one example: The proposed Smith #1 coal-fired plant in eastern Kentucky. Instead of a costly coal-fired dinosaur, a recent study found that a combination of "energy efficiency, weatherization, hydropower, and wind power initiatives in the East Kentucky Power Cooperative region would generate more than 8,750 new jobs for Kentucky residents, with a total impact of more than $1.7 billion on the region's economy over the next three years."

For me, the only way to move toward a clean energy future is to commit to a vision of a coal-free future. Otherwise, we will let ourselves be blindsided, as we have been for decades, with the "clean coal" machinations of the coal industry.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.