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Editorial: Plugged in to a disaster

Most Rowan County residents probably don’t spend much time thinking about mountaintop mining in West Virginia or Kentucky or Tennessee. But as a recent speaker at the Rotary Club of Salisbury made clear, we should. The reason is as close as the computer on your desktop or the thermostat on your wall.
The representative from the Appalachian Voices environmental group, which has offices in Boone and Asheville, described the environmental and economic repercussions of mountaintop removal coal mining, which involves scraping away vegetation, soil and rock to expose buried coal seams at high elevations. As the mountaintop is removed, the debris is dumped into valleys and streams below. It’s a relatively cheap way to get coal ó cheap, that is, until you consider the environmental devastation, the impact on those who live nearby and the economic tradeoff that increases coal-company profits at the expense of local communities.
Here’s the N.C. link: This state is one of the top consumers of coal from mountaintop mining. Together, Duke Power and Progress Energy have at least 13 power plants that purchase mountaintop coal, including the Buck Steam Station here in Rowan. To put it bluntly, we enjoy the benefits of mountaintop mining without having to breathe, drink, hear or view the consequences. Imagine the uproar if this were North Carolina’s mountains.
Unfortunately, we often don’t start paying attention until catastrophe strikes. It took last month’s billion-gallon sludge spill in Kingston, Tenn., to raise awareness of the potential problems with coal-ash ponds at more than 150 coal-fired plants (including Buck) and the need for stronger safeguards. With mountaintop removal, the catastrophe is incremental. So far, it has flattened more than 470 peaks and buried more than 1,200 miles of streams. You’d think federal regulators would stop or at least restrain the practice. But owing to the financial influence of the coal industry and the political clout of coal-country legislators like Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), regulations have been all but neutralized. Confronted with rising complaints about mountaintop mining, the EPA under the Bush administration simply relaxed the rules.
With a lack of federal action, a few individual states have taken up the fight. In North Carolina, state Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) has proposed barring N.C. companies from importing mountaintop coal. N.C. utilities argue this would raise the cost of electricity without sparing any mountains, since the coal would simply be shipped to other customers, including China. But that ignores how N.C. residents feel about subsidizing mountaintop mining with their electric bills. And it discounts the power of public sentiment to influence business practices. Bowing to pressure, Bank of American recently announced it would cease financing mountaintop removal operations.
Duke and other energy companies are quick to tout how they’re “greening” up their business model by investing in alternative energy production such as solar arrays and wind turbines and educating consumers about conservation strategies. They deserve credit there, but they should also educate consumers about the true costs of “cheap” mountaintop coal and how the wiring in their homes connects to an environmental disaster in Appalachia.

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