How Wind Farms May Really Replace Coal Mining
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The late John Flynn, an environmentalist raised in West Virginia's Big Coal River Valley, was a farsighted man. In 1995, Flynn met a Catholic sister fighting poverty there. They talked about the abuses that Massey Coal Company's operations had inflicted on the valley. There were the mining jobs denied to local people and an economy on its knees, people forced out of their homes to accommodate mining in hollows, and front porches blanketed by coal dust. Flynn wondered aloud about placing windmills on top of the mountains surrounding them to produce power. Why, he suggested, couldn't an array of windmills replace the giant coal mines that dominated the valley?
What Flynn didn't know was that in a few years Massey would begin the most draconian form of strip mining, known as mountaintop removal, which to date in Appalachia has been responsible for the destruction of more than 470 mountains and staggering damage to the environment and communities. Currently, mountaintop removal (MTR) operations stretch for 14 miles down one side of the river and about five miles on the other. Massey now has in its sights the last untouched major part of the valley, the huge Coal River Mountain. It plans to subject 10 square miles of it to mountaintop removal, blasting the top off to expose its coal, filling 18 hollows (local parlance for valleys) with the debris and burying six headwater streams. Most of Coal River Valley might be rendered uninhabitable.
On Coal River, mountaintop removal mining has meant living with daily blasting with thousands of pounds of explosives, some set off within a few hundred feet of homes; contamination of groundwater and Coal River; and damage to cemeteries and loss of access to them. People have to breathe in coal dust every day. When it rains hard, further flooding from mountains stripped of all cover is feared. Some families have lost their "home place" completely. Others have seen their property plummet in value. Young people can't find work, and many residents have left the area, causing school after school to close.
For years, residents have tried to fight off the four mining permits for Coal River Mountain, which could open the door to strip mining by early 2009. Meanwhile, the regional environmental group Appalachian Voices had been working with the firm Wind Logics to search for wind potential in southern West Virginia. They were surprised to find that despite their lack of elevation, the Appalachians could generate industrial-scale wind. They decided to do a more detailed look at the potential of two locales and discovered that on one, Coal River Mountain, strong winds blow.
This led a local community group, Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), a band of mining watchdogs, to forsake years of defensive tactics against Massey and take the offensive. In a bid to trump the company's plans, the group is working to substitute wind power on Coal River Mountain for strip-mined coal as an energy source. CRMW's campaign, Coal River Wind, is groundbreaking, the first of its kind in Appalachia's coalfields, and has been termed historic. In effect, some people on Coal River are seeking to make John Flynn's vision come true.
But with Coal River Mountain largely in the hands of three large land companies from which Massey leases the mine sites, CRMW has its work cut out for it. Undaunted, members are pursuing a strategy to shut down strip mining in favor of multiple economic uses of the area -- timber, hunting and fishing, local craft and furniture making, tourism, and temporarily, underground mining. They believe these could form the basis for sustainable economic development in the valley.
The Coal River Wind project is ambitious. Coal River Mountain Watch proposes to put 220 wind turbines, each 292 feet high, that combined could generate 440 megawatts, across miles of the mountain at a cost of upward of $1 billion. A study by WindLogics, Appalachian Voices and wind farm campaign coordinator Rory McIlmoil, 28, who has studied and analyzed wind energy for the past 16 months, found that a wind farm could produce enough power for 150,000 homes -- more than the entire surrounding county has -- and create at least 200 jobs for the two-year construction period and 40 to 50 permanent jobs to keep the turbines running. Underground mining, according to the study, would create at least another 200 direct mining jobs and potentially more if mountaintop removal were prevented, given the current demand for coal from central Appalachia.
The study acknowledges that while the four proposed mountain removal operation sites would generate far fewer jobs -- only an estimated 65 to 225 per year, since some permit areas contain much less coal than others -- they would generate much more power. However, the study notes an important difference: The mountain will yield only 14 years' worth of coal from strip-mining, while a wind farm could operate indefinitely. Moreover, the study found that only 1 in every 16 tons of coal to be produced on any West Virginia mountain is used for energy consumption within the state -- the rest is exported to other states or abroad. A good deal of wind power is bound to be exported as well, McIlmoil said, but not at the heavy social and environmental costs of strip-mined coal.
Wind farm supporters also point out that the wind farm would preserve other economic uses of the mountain, such as sustainable forestry.
Tackling Climate Change and Providing Green Jobs
According to McIlmoil, if Massey wins all four permits and mountaintop removal proceeds, the mountain would produce 58 million tons of coal in its 14 years of operation, resulting in the emission of about 170 million tons of CO2. But the competing plan for wind and underground mining, he said, "will prevent release of 104 million tons of CO2 over the first 14 years."
A revelation of the study was that mountaintop removal mining robs a mountain of wind power and wind farm potential by lowering its height by hundreds of feet. This raises the stakes on Coal River: Once such strip mining has occurred, no wind farm will be possible any time in the future.
McIlmoil sees this as a silver lining if mountaintop removal cannot be stopped. "If the state allows the mining to proceed after the whole nation knows ... what MTR will do to the wind potential, then they're going to look really bad," he said, "and MTR is going to be viewed in a whole new light, as destroying the resources that renewable energy and alternative economic development could be based on."
To McIlmoil, the wind farm represents the needed transition from coal -- providing energy "in a very old, very destructive and very dirty way" -- to clean energy. "If the nation's going to be really serious about moving toward clean energy," he said, "it could really show its ... commitment to that by preserving Coal River Mountain through wind power."
Mary Anne Hitt, the executive director of Appalachian Voices, added, "If you can build a wind farm in the middle of the Appalachian coalfields on a mountain slated for mountaintop removal, it would be a powerful statement toward making people part of the alternative energy economy." Hitt said people in Appalachia fear they're going to be left out of that economy and left to live with fossil fuels.
Every time one of the many lawsuits that have been filed against mountaintop removal threatens to shut down a mine in Appalachia, the specter of strip-miners losing their jobs is raised as the first and last word in the matter. Such high-paying jobs are precious in the coalfields. McIlmoil argues that investment in renewable energy would benefit miners, because they're already good with machinery and could be easily trained for green jobs.
"Green jobs are long-term, stable jobs," he maintained. Unlike coal industry jobs, he said, "their existence doesn't depend on litigation or boom-and-bust cycles." Green jobs may pay less, he acknowledged, but they are more stable and safer than jobs in the mines, where workers are exposed to coal dust, toxins or explosives. Some have to "work 10- to 12-hour days, seven days a week, going three months without a day off," he said, referring to some nonunion mines.
He argued that renewables also bring in new manufacturing and stable tax revenues for the state and counties. "If (West Virginians) are serious about the jobs argument," he said, "green jobs is the obvious solution."
The Campaign's Prospects
Three wind farm developers are interested enough in Coal River Mountain that they have held exploratory talks with the largest landowner as well as himself, McIlmoil said. Coal River Wind's strategy is to pressure West Virginia officials to buy out or even rescind the leases held by Massey on the mountain, and then convince the landowners that they could make good money by leasing the land instead for a wind farm and deep mining. Clearly, it's a tall order. McIlmoil estimates that if they succeed, it will be four to six years before the wind farm is in operation.
Today the group is launching a national campaign on behalf of the wind farm, a media blitz aimed at getting the public and organizations to lean on Gov. Joe Manchin and other officials. It's largely an online campaign in which its supporters -- the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and Appalachian Voices -- will all send out e-mail blasts about the campaign to their members; these will reach more than 1 million people. Members will be linked to a video about Coal River Mountain (shown on the right), videos of community testimonials, a petition to state officials and a letter to the governor.
McIlmoil and supporters have already met with many state and local officials and have won sympathy in various quarters and official support from the Affiliated Construction Trades union. Significantly, the United Mine Workers has expressed no opposition. Still, they have a long way to go.
But even if the project fails to get a green light, it has already introduced a new factor onto the energy scene. Other Appalachian communities may follow suit by also trying to replace mining with wind energy. Appalachian Voices, together with three other environmental groups, is seeking funding to conduct a wind mapping study in the Virginia coalfields and apply the Coal River model in communities there. One community group in Virginia is reportedly raring to go.
Peter Slavin, a freelance journalist based in Oakton, Va. near Washington, D.C., has followed events along the Big Coal River since 1995. His articles on Appalachia have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times Magazine.