Coal Consequences

Posted March 12, 2009, at 11:06 p.m.

Coal extraction in Appalachia in recent years has become dramatically efficient. Instead of tunneling, mining companies often use surface mining, a process that allows heavy equipment to remove mass quantities at a time, which reduces labor costs. In recent decades, 470 mountaintops have been leveled in West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and North Carolina, all in the pursuit of coal.

Residential wells are so badly polluted that physicians warn people against even bathing in the water. Dust hangs in the air, causing health problems for many. Foundations of homes are cracked from the blasting. Runoff chokes streams, and the rubble — thanks to a Bush administration rule change — is often dumped into lakes and ponds.

Beyond feeling sympathy for those living with such health threats and degradation to quality of life, does this have anything to do with Maine? Rep. Elsie Flemings, D-Bar Harbor, believes it does. Some 12 percent of Maine’s electricity comes from coal-fired plants.

Rep. Flemings will introduce a bill that would require the Department of Environmental Protection to study the sources of Maine electricity and its impact on climate change and health in Maine.

Her bill would require that information about and photos of mountain-top coal extraction be included in Maine electric bills. The goal is to make people think about the consequences of their electricity purchase. Mainers can choose a “green” electricity offer from their provider; that cluster of power sources is slightly more expensive.

The intent is to educate people, in a manner similar to campaigns that raised awareness about how low-cost clothing and footwear are manufactured in the developing world. Once a consumer knows that a $5 T-shirt was made by a woman working a 14-hour shift in a dirty, hot factory earning the equivalent of a few dollars a day, it’s hard to feel good about purchasing the garment.

“It’s a consumer rights bill,” Rep. Flemings said of her proposal. Opponents may claim the photos will serve as political propaganda, but at the very least, they will initiate a public discussion about the consequences of energy purchasing.

Asked what impact mountaintop extraction has on Maine, Lenny Kohm, who works with the Boone, N.C.-based environmental advocacy group Appalachian Voices, turns the question around. “It’s more that Maine has an impact on this,” he said, gesturing to dramatic photos of the wasteland created by the surface mining (see: IloveMountains.org). Along with the leveling of mountains, surface mining has wiped out 490,000 acres of forest in the Appalachia region.

To their credit, Mainers would never allow the kind of resource removal that has devastated Appalachia to be used in the Pine Tree State. Rep. Flemings’ bill asks Mainers: Will you pay to allow it in Appalachia?

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