What Happens After Coal for West Virginia Mountaintop Miners?

I recently returned from a demonstration in Coal River, West Virginia against mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR). While some high profile demonstrators such as Daryl Hannah, Dr James Hansen, and Goldman Prize winner Judy Bonds were arrested, what made this demonstration most poignant was the counter-protest in support of Massey Energy and MTR:

marsh fork elementary school photo
Coal Mine a Quarter Mile from Elementary School
This particular demonstration took place at Marsh Fork Elementary, a regional school located less than 400 yards from a coal mine owned by Massey Energy. According to the protest organizers, if there were a catastrophic accident at the Massey site, students would have under three minutes to complete a full evacuation of the area.

MTR Not Just Bad for the Environment...
Mountaintop removal coal mining has earned Massey Energy the inglorious distinction of having paid out the largest civil penalty ever for violations of the Clean Water Act. The process is conducted in counties with some of the lowest per capita income and education levels in Appalachia, and has turned much of southern West Virginia into a pockmarked wasteland.

treehuggers go home photo

Massey Employees Outnumbered Demonstrators
Outnumbering the environmentalists roughly 3 to 1, Massey employees and their families shouted "Go home treehuggers, these are our mountains." At one point, a Massey employee was arrested for getting physical with a demonstrator, and many of the planned speeches were rendered inaudible by a chorus of motorcycle and truck engines.

Admittedly, the miners have a point. For many of these people, coal mining is more a way of life than simply an occupation. There are few businesses in Coal River that are not associated with mining, and many of the town's residents are 2nd or 3rd generation miners.

However, most experts predict that within 20 years there will be little coal left in Appalachia. Like it or not, Coal River residents will soon be asking "What Comes After Coal?"

green jobs now photo

Wind Turbines May Be a Ways Off
Mountaintop wind farms have been suggested as an alternative means to provide power and high-paying jobs to the region. Unfortunately, much of southern West Virginia ranks as a class 1 or 2 wind resource, making it unattractive to developers of large wind farms.

Coal = Politics in West Virginia
Furthermore, the state has the lowest percentage of college-educated citizens in the United States.

Perhaps most importantly, the coal industry has a history of dominating politics in West Virginia. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been repeatedly accused of unfairly influencing the decisions of West Virginia politicians to support coal industry interests. Given this reality, it seems unlikely that Coal River will ever see a wind turbine.

Biomass a Solution?
A potential solution that has not been explored lies in biomass, the very stuff that gave rise to coal millions of years ago. Bioelectricity, or the use of biomass to produce electricity, has been cited as the most efficient way to extract energy from plant material.

West Virginia already has a thriving timber industry, and emerging biomass densification technologies can convert raw biomass into a 'biocoal' that is suitable for combustion in existing coal-fired power plants.

While bioelectricity is not a perfect solution—it still involves the harvesting and combustion of biomass—it could ease the transition to a more sustainable and renewable economy in many of the nation's coal towns. By utilizing existing equipment and infrastructure, bioelectricity could create sustainable jobs without drawing the ire of the coal industry.

friends of mountains photo

Demonstration a Success
At the end of the day, the Coal River Demonstration appears to have been a success. It has brought national attention to a practice that is harmful, costly and responsible for less than 5% of national coal production.

Senate subcommittee hearings are currently underway to investigate the phasing out of MTR. However, with coal-fired power plants producing nearly 50% of the nation's power, more sustainable energy sources must take up the slack.

Guest blogger Jason Aramburu is the founder of re:char, a developer of small-scale biochar and bioenergy technologies. All photographs were taken by Abigail Cohen.
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