5 Amazing Places in the US in Danger of Being Destroyed by Dirty Energy

Personal Health

The Obama administration's rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline was a major victory for environmentalists. For far too long, the fossil fuel industry has decimated ecosystems and destroyed human lives. Local opposition, grassroots organizing and Republican grandstanding doomed the pipeline as presently conceived to failure.

TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, showed the petroleum industry's usual indifference to people and nature. It planned on running the pipeline through Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sandhills. Just beneath the Sandhills lays the Ogallala Aquifer, the major source of irrigation on the Great Plains. If the oil leaks into the aquifer, the prime source of water for America's breadbasket would be contaminated.

Even some Republican politicians in blood-red Nebraska lobbied against the pipeline, helping convince President Obama to kill it in its present form. To be sure, most Nebraskans do support the building of the pipeline, but they demand a say in the route. Their desires are straightforward: the protection of their ecosystem and small farm communities from erosion and groundwater pollution.

This victory should remind us of the other beautiful places in the United States permanently destroyed by dirty energy's drive to maximize profit at the expense of ecological and human health. Here are five American places under grave threat from the fossil fuel industry.

1. West Virginia

Nowhere in the United States has suffered more damage from the energy industry than West Virginia. The early-20th-century coal industry ran the isolated valleys of West Virginia as a medieval fiefdom until the United Mine Workers brought the industry to heel. Today, the coal industry has turned to mountaintop removal to pull the coal from the mountains. This process blows up mountains, allowing the companies to shovel out the coal at low cost. The pulverized land is dumped into the valleys below, choking streambeds and exposing local residents to hazardous chemicals. It leads to the erosion and deforestation that has contributed to widespread local flooding over the past decade.

While profitable for industry, mountaintop removal is a disaster for humans and ecology. Recent studies have shown abnormally high birth defect rates in counties afflicted by mountaintop removal. The coal industry's insulting response to this study was to suggest incest was the real culprit. 

Even though impoverished West Virginians are desperate for coal jobs, local residents have organized to fight mountaintop removal. Groups like Mountain Justice draw attention to mountaintop removal's horrors, but while environmentalists are aware of the problem, halting the practice has never been at the top of progressives' national agenda. It should be. This is the greatest environmental and human health disaster happening in the United States today.

2. Wyoming

As the coal industry blasts the last bits of usable rock out of West Virginia, it is investing heavily in America's new coal center -- Wyoming's Powder River Basin. In March 2011, the Department of Interior opened 758 million tons of coal for drilling on federal lands in Wyoming. The Powder River Basin already provides 40 percent of the material burned in U.S. coal-fired power plants, a number rising yearly.

Although national environmental groups have fought the expansion of Wyoming coal mining, little organized local opposition has developed. A state long dependent on extractive industries and hostile to environmentalists, its empty spaces and sparse population keep it off Americans' radar screens. But the coal companies are permanently changing the face of this beautiful region as much as they are West Virginia. The solution is to wean ourselves off coal, not to continue scarring the planet with polluting mines.

3. Louisiana Marshlands

The last famous energy disaster in the United States was the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil derrick in 2010. For months, we focused our attention on the fire, the oil spill, and the damage to Gulf wildlife and fisheries. But this was only the latest in a century-long spree of disasters that have permanently altered the Louisiana coast.

For all the oil spills and soiled fisheries, the oil industry's greatest impact on the Louisiana coast is the decline of the marshlands. This is a complex issue with multiple causes, but the plowing of canals through the ecologically sensitive marshlands opened them to salt water erosion. This began in the early 20th century and continues today. The lack of sediment to replace washed away land has led to the parishes of southeast Louisiana disappearing into the ocean, destroying the area's unique ecosystem, the shrimp and crayfish that people harvest for food, and the Cajun people who call it home. A football field's worth of land disappears into the Gulf every hour; over the past 75 years, a piece of Louisiana the size of Delaware has dissolved, along with its wildlife, farms, towns, and cemeteries.

The marshes traditionally served as a buffer zone between Gulf Coast hurricanes and the cities of New Orleans. Fifty miles of reduced marsh meant Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans with greater force than it would have 50 years earlier.

While Louisiana remains dependent on dirty energy for jobs, the government could replenish the marshes through engineering the Mississippi River to flood the marshes rather than channel it to dump all its sediment in the Gulf. Here is a place where we could fix some of the energy industry's damage, but the political will does not yet exist to follow through on recovery plans.

4. East Texas-South Louisiana Petrochemical Corridor

A polluted ecosystem leads to sick people. This is the case on the Gulf Coast from east Texas into Louisiana, where the oil industry processes its raw material. The people who live near these plants, ranging from roughly Corpus Christi to the Mississippi River, are mostly poor and African American. Petroleum companies have intentionally sited their plants here, assuming that underprivileged people cannot resist a multinational corporation. Local residents have seen high cancer rates, birth defects and congenital health problems. Working conditions in these plants are notoriously poor. A 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas killed 17 workers and injured more than 170.

However, locals have fought back. Although environmental organizations have been reluctant to take on their cases, environmental justice movements have demanded protection from exposure to toxic chemicals. Steve Lerner's book Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor chronicles how the community of Diamond, Louisiana took on the town's Royal Dutch Shell complex to stop the headaches, respiratory illnesses and cancers that afflicted residents. After years of organizing, Shell finally agreed to relocate their homes away from the plant.

That's one limited success story, but thousands of poor people live their lives subjected to the environmental racism of the petroleum industry. Our energy future needs to include processing energy in a way that protects people's health and spreads the burden of energy production more evenly.

5. Upstate New York

Other than the Keystone pipeline, the major battle to save American people and places from dirty energy production is over fracking. Fracking is a method of natural gas drilling that pumps enormous amounts of pressurized fluid into the ground. This breaks rock and allows for easier extraction. The United States has plunged ahead with fracking without studying its long-term effects upon the land or human health.

Arkansas temporarily banned fracking in 2011 after growing earthquakes near wells; the quakes stopped almost immediately. Native Americans on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation claim that fracking has contaminated their water supply, forcing them to boil water before drinking it.

The biggest showdown over fracking is taking place in the land above the Marcellus Shale formation, in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. In my recent travels to New York, I have seen hundreds of signs and stickers festooned on cars and buildings protesting fracking; iconic upstate businesses like Ommegang Brewery fear the contamination of the local water central to its brewing process.

Local opposition is fierce and these states have large and organized progressive communities. But the energy industry is powerful and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed support for at least some fracking in the Marcellus Shale. 2012 is an important year for the future of fracking. If New York and Pennsylvania residents can halt drilling the Marcellus Shale, it will be a major victory for opponents of dirty energy.

What Do We Do?

We need to harvest energy in order to feed our bodies, our consumer desires and our economy. The conversion of raw material into energy has consequences. But we need to make collective decisions on how to balance our energy needs with our equally important needs to live, work and play in healthy environments. Government and corporate investment in solar, wind and other renewable energy sources have the potential to strike a better balance than coal, oil and natural gas.

The Keystone XL decision is a good first step for citizen participation in energy decisions, but there are many places in the United States that need protection from the petroleum industry. Not only is the land above the Marcellus Shale under threat, but Republicans and some Democrats continue to push for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the expansion of offshore oil drilling, and the intensive exploitation of new coal seams across the West and Appalachia.

In this election year, progressives need to push for Democratic candidates with strong clean energy agendas. We need politicians who will emphasize solar and wind over coal and oil. Most importantly, we need to hold the dirty energy industry accountable for its impact on the land and health of American people and ecosystems. 

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