The TH Interview: David Orr (Part Two) The Carbon Connection

In the second part of our interview, David Orr traces the dirty trail of coal from ravaged Appalachian mountains to the carnage of the Gulf Coast, both of which he knows firsthand. Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or listen/right-click to download. (Listen to Part One here)

TreeHugger: The last time that I saw you, David, was down in New Orleans. Global Green, Brad Pitt, and the neighborhood associations of the Lower Ninth Ward were unveiling a green development. Building green in New Orleans is an idea that's certainly got traction now. But you've spoken about a bigger problem which seems to overshadow these sort of steps. Can you tell me about that?

David Orr: Well, first of all you have to take your hat off to people like Matt Petersen [of Global Green] and Brad Pitt. There are hundreds of people, thousands of people, that are working to rebuild New Orleans. But there's this remorseless working out of large numbers; all of that effort is going to be in vain sooner or later unless we deal with the big issues of rising seas, which is an attribute of climate change, and the mismanagement of the lower Mississippi.Most of what needs to be done is pretty well understood, but it involves taking part of the Mississippi and splaying it back out into wetlands to rebuild them. That's a naturally sinking topography. Presently the sediments coming down the Mississippi that used to replenish wetlands are either held behind dams upstream or they're shot off the continental shelf.

We're just marking time down there until the big storm hits and the sea level rise becomes simply unmanageable.

As a result, New Orleans is much more vulnerable to the destruction of wetlands that tend to buffer big storms and storm surges. So there needs to be an effort to highlight New Orleans. This is the precedent we will set for Miami and Charleston, Savannah and New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington. This is how those cities will eventually deal with rising sea levels.

Matt Petersen has what is a great idea, and that is a league of cities roughly at the same latitude around the world, that come together in alliance to share information and help build a common case for preserving some of these cities directly in crosshairs of danger.

But in New Orleans' case, all the effort to rebuild isn't going to help. The next big storm that comes through here now will not be buffered by miles and miles of wetlands that are disappearing because of sinking and mismanagement of the river. It means that bigger storms will have a bigger effect, nothing to lesson the winds or storm surge, between the gulf and city of New Orleans.

But in New Orleans' case, all the effort to rebuild isn't going to help. The next big storm that comes through here now will not be buffered by miles and miles of wetlands...

What I would like to see happen is to have all of the efforts of all of the people involved down there begin to come together around a common idea, that is political in its origin, to help build a constituency to generate what would probably be 50 to 70 billion dollars to do the job right. This means doing the levees right, rebuilding the wetlands, and changing a good bit of the behavior patterns of oil companies that have done an awful lot of damage to that part of the world.

That's been an extractive zone and the marks of destruction are pretty evident. It seems to me that if we don't solve that then everything else is really useless. We're just marking time down there until the big storm hits and the sea level rise becomes simply unmanageable.

TreeHugger: Obviously you have great respect for the people on the ground who are rebuilding New Orleans in a responsible way. But is this an example of happy talk in a way? Are people scared to confront this bigger, darker issue by focusing on what they can grasp that's positive?

David: I think that's possible. I think that a lot people look at the magnitude of the problem and it's daunting. To raise 50 billion dollars? It means rethinking what the Corp of Engineers has set about to do down there. Pulling the Corp back and getting a better management plan by building a constituency with people. The good news about Katrina is now lots of people know what the problem is who didn't know about it before. It's been on CNN and it's been on all kinds of magazines, and it's had a lot of attention.

The other part of the good news is that I think we know pretty much what has to happen there. But to tie New Orleans into a larger picture that includes climate change, rebuilding coastal wetlands, and also doing green building: a lot of the pieces are there. I really do have a huge admiration for Matt Petersen and all the people at Global Green; they got in there and dealt with first things first and made the place habitable again using the best technology the building group could offer. It's a huge step. The next step, I think, is to pull together a much larger effort to galvanize the political will around a clear, scientifically authentic, and manageable and doable plan for the region.

One of the problems we've had in this country is that we don't do land-use planning. The last bill, as far as I can recall, before Congress for a national land-use planning effort was in 1974. And it was only a bill that offered help states do land-use planning if they wanted to. There were no teeth in it at all—they were not required to do anything. It was shot down because some people thought it was a left wing plot to introduce communism into the American government.

Now we find out that New Orleans, and lots of places, are in jeopardy because we have not been able to plan; coastal areas being the most obvious.

TreeHugger: You wrote a chilling and beautiful essay about coal called The Carbon Connection. Here, you follow the trail from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to Appalachia—Kentucky and West Virginia—where mountains are being blown apart by mining companies for coal. You describe flying over the destruction, which in your words is "metastasizing across the Appalachian states." What is this mountaintop removal tragedy?

David: Mountaintop removal is just strip mining on speed. It's a form of coal mining that allows coal companies, if they are permitted to get away with it, to knock the tops off of mountains and get at the thin seams of coal that are in their tops. Appalachia typically has around 35 seams of coal from top to bottom. The bottoms are obviously much thicker, but the top ones are up in the topography and it was simply too expensive to get at. You couldn't really deep mine and go in and get them, they were unavailable.

So coal companies began to blow off the tops of mountains and then dump the residue down in the valleys. And the result is kind of a moonscape. They've wrecked about 1,000 to 1,200 miles of streams that have been filled in. It's affected about 1.5 million acres of Appalachia, some of the most fecund, beautiful forests on the planet; also a great carbon sink.

This represents about three percent of the U.S. coal supply, so it's not a significant fraction of what we are said to need for coal. But it will run out (depending on the rate of consumption) in ten to twenty years, anyway.

So what the coal companies are going to do is leave behind an utter moonscape. It's a derangement I can't describe. I've seen people get out of the airplanes when they do flyovers of the area and they're speechless for five or ten minutes. It's just hard to describe what you saw. From horizon to horizon at five thousand feet all you see is moonscape, giant equipment tearing mountains apart.

I've seen people get out of the airplanes when they do flyovers of the area and they're speechless for five or ten minutes. It's just hard to describe what you saw.

And it doesn't end there. They leave behind literally hundreds of these slurry ponds that are the result of washing coal. All the flocculants and heavy metals and so forth from washing the impurities out of the coal are left in these huge lagoons, with billions of gallons of this stuff. At Marsh Fork Elementary School, kids will have maybe a minute warning if the dam ever gives way.

The human tragedy is just huge. Water pours off of these denuded landscapes, so where rains were once contained by the vegetation, topography, and the stream contours native to the place, they are now subject to huge walls of water coming off these destroyed landscapes.

Flooding is now rampant and the people in West Virginia and Appalachia are pretty powerless in the face of this.

This is the result of an absolutely destroyed political system. People are unable to fight back. You referred to the title of that article, The Carbon Connection, which is simply this: they're joined by the fact that the carbon in that coal, that is eventually burned, is helping to amplify global warming and to destroy coastal cities like New Orleans.

Tags: New Orleans | TreeHugger Radio

Best of TreeHugger