Hell Yeah, We Want Windmills

Photo: Antrim Caskey
Photo: Antrim Caskey

ON A WARM SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON, I pulled off the interstate in Charleston, West Virginia, under a billboard that read, in stark black letters:


clean, carbon neutral coal

I drove another two blocks and parked my truck next to the governor’s mansion, where, in a small rock garden, red and white begonias spelled out: hope.

Coal and hope — for a moment, I considered the rhetorical and symbolic proximity of those two words. Recently, while the shadow of climate change lengthened and the lie of free markets unraveled, I had begun to doubt the promise of either to deliver on a future I want to inhabit. No coal-fired power plant in West Virginia, nor anywhere else in central Appalachia, sequesters carbon, nor do they extract from the bituminous ore its mercury and asthma-inducing particulates. A 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office warns that U.S. carbon-capture research is still dramatically underfunded and underdeveloped. So for some time, “clean, carbon neutral coal” will exist in name only — a lie on a billboard. As for hope, even that idea had been losing, at least for me, its audacious potential, its ability to navigate the shoals of public cynicism and despair. Here, in this domestic flower bed, hope looked at best like a decorous sentiment — sweet but irrelevant, certainly no match for Big Coal.

Some years ago, Wendell Berry warned me that, to fight the coal industry, one must “accept heartbreak as a working condition.” Since then, I’ve watched coal operators dismantle one mountain after another across central Appalachia. I’ve watched them dump entire mountaintops into the valleys below, strangling and poisoning the region’s healthiest streams. I’ve watched the previous administration rewrite the Clean Water Act to make this dumping legal, and I’ve watched industry insiders take control of, then undermine, the federal agencies whose job it is to prevent such abuse. Which is to say, there’s been more than enough heartbreak to go around, and it has made me leery of anyone trading in hope and promising change.

Friends from the coasts tell me I’m too pessimistic, too doom-and-gloom. Maybe so, but for too long it seems like environmentalists around here have been caught up in some kind of circular Appalachian three-step: 1) fight the good fight; 2) lose the good fight; 3) go have a beer and take consolation in the fact that at least you fought the good fight. Over time, this story of our struggle to save these imperiled mountains starts to sound like the larger story of Appalachia, a tragedy of the commons that repeats itself with an unnerving relentlessness: industrial aggressors buy off the politicians and the police, rob the region of its wealth, then blame the people of the mountains for their poverty and stubbornness in the face of “progress.” I had come to Charleston, the center of coal country, looking for a new narrative.

In his recent book The Last Refuge, David Orr writes of the environmental movement, “The public, I think, knows what we are against, but not what we are for. There are many things that should be stopped, but what should be started?” That day last fall, under the capitol’s gilded dome, some coal field residents from southern West Virginia had gathered to offer their answer: a wind farm. They wore symbolic green hardhats and held signs that said:


truly clean and carbon neutral

Jesse Johnson, the progressive Mountain Party candidate for governor, gave a fiery speech in which he suggested we stop pulverizing and burning coal, and instead invest in carbon-composite technology. Then a bluegrass band called the Long Haul started playing, and someone up on stage said that was about right — fighting the coal industry in West Virginia is indeed a long haul.

This particular attempt to fight Big Coal began in 2006, when a group of citizen-activists called Coal River Mountain Watch teamed up with Orr to commission a study of wind currents along the top of Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County, West Virginia. WindLogics, a firm out of St. Paul, conducted the feasibility study and found strong, recurrent winds sweeping through the valleys and peaking across the tops of these close-shouldered, sprawling mountain spurs so characteristic of the southern Appalachians. Using Google Earth software, and working in alliance with the American Wind Energy Association and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the citizen-activists of Coal River Mountain Watch constructed a computer model of a wind farm that would accommodate 220 turbines. If built, these turbines could generate 328 megawatts of energy annually, enough to power more than 7 percent of West Virginia homes.

What’s more, Coal River Mountain Watch calculated that construction of the wind farm would create two hundred jobs over two years and around fifty permanent on-site maintenance jobs, which would generate $40 million in local spending over the first two years and $2 million every subsequent year. Annual county tax revenues could reach $3 million, with state revenues coming in at around $400,000. Adding the amount of coal-based energy the wind farm would displace to the tons of coal that would be left in the ground at Coal River Mountain, project coordinator Rory McIlmoil calculated that 86 million tons of carbon dioxide would be kept out of the atmosphere — truly sequestered — during the wind farm’s first twenty years. Downstream Strategies, a consulting firm out of Morgantown, would later confirm these numbers. Bottom line: more jobs, more tax revenue, less CO2, and far fewer health problems that result from contaminated water and coal dust.

There was only one snag, but it was a big one. Massey Energy, out of Richmond, Virginia, had already leased the mineral rights beneath the six thousand acres where the wind farm would stand, and Massey was indeed planning to exercise those rights by leveling most of Coal River Mountain. A spokesman for Massey issued this statement: “We encourage the Coal River Mountain Watch to do what any responsible energy producer would do: identify and acquire a site for their project and obtain the permits and infrastructure necessary to make that project happen.” There are, however, two problems with this statement. To imply, for one, that Massey is a “responsible” producer of energy represents a considerable disregard for the facts. Between 2000 and 2006, the company violated the Clean Water Act more than 4,500 times, racking up $20 million in fines from the EPA (the maximum fine could have been $2.4 billion). When security concerns were raised about some of Massey’s underground mines, CEO Don Blankenship wrote a memo to employees that read: “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.” A few months later, two miners died in a Massey mine fire caused by a buildup of flammable coal waste along a conveyer belt. Cleaning the belt might have prevented the fire, but the mine foremen were too busy running coal to stop for that.

The second, more fundamental problem with Massey’s statement is that the people who live around Coal River Mountain are not trying to become energy producers. They are trying to keep the mountain that frames and defines their communities from being blown apart. A wind farm, it turns out, looks like the best way to make that happen.

“Coal River Mountain is the last of our mountains in our community,” longtime resident Bo Webb told me at the rally. “Everyone’s life revolves around that mountain. Hell yeah, we’re fighting for it. I don’t know why the governor is so perplexed by that.” The governor in question is Joe Manchin, who had tangled with Don Blankenship before and seemed uneager to re-enter the fray. Over three thousand calls to his office in support of the wind farm had failed to move him. Thus a sense of urgency surrounded the rally. A long procession of coal field residents stepped to the mike and urged Manchin to get off the dime and rescind the Massey permits. They said they were not against coal, that their fathers and grandfathers had been underground miners, and that they were proud of that tradition. But mountaintop removal was destroying Coal River Valley. Lessie Maynor said a Massey holding pond had collapsed behind her house in 2001 and washed away “everything we had worked for, for the past forty years.” Charles Ballard said the strip mining was “messing up every damn thing we have in these mountains.” They were citizens of West Virginia, they said, and they had the right to live in peace, with clean air and clean water, and without fear of blasting and flooding. They wanted something else for Coal River Valley.

When the rest of the country thinks about southern Appalachia, it often thinks of the past — of backwardness even. That image benefits the coal industry immensely, making it much easier for companies like Massey to justify irreparable damage that would never be tolerated in, say, the Adirondacks. These West Virginians were tired of living on the receiving end of that attitude. They were tired of nineteenth-century stereotypes and nineteenth-century sources of energy. Now they had a plan, a blueprint for how to disentangle the region from the world’s most toxic industry.

It all sounded pretty impressive to me. The people of Coal River Valley were calling for a new kind of economy, one that was both socially and ecologically just. It was a more honest economy, whereby the “externalities” of doing business — the mine waste, the toxic water, the flooding — were not off-loaded on the people who, unlike Don Blankenship, actually had to live in the coal fields. At a time when 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems are being degraded by human impacts, here was a plan that maintained both the integrity and the diversity of the Appalachian Mountains. At the onset of peak oil and radical climate change, here was a plan that worked with, rather than against, the ultimate system of exchange — the economy of nature.

OUTSIDE THE COAL RIVER Mountain Watch office in Whitesville, West Virginia, Matt Noerpel hands me a motorcycle helmet and we head for Sycamore Hollow, a few miles away. It’s October, and the first fall color is coming to the poplars. We stop at the home of Bacon Brown, an elderly man who has collected nearly nine pounds of ginseng root from these hillsides since the official ginseng season began in September. On the Asian market, the herb will fetch him a tidy profit. Traditionally, many mountain families use their ginseng money for Christmas presents; unfortunately, ginseng is one more local economy that is disappearing along with these forests and mountaintops.

Beneath Brown’s carport, Noerpel unlocks two ATVs. Within minutes, we are careening along a steep trail that leads up the ridgeside. As I follow Noerpel’s long mane of red hair, my enormous Kawasaki four-wheeler leaps over fallen tree limbs and heavy cobble. Once we reach the ridgeline, we head west to the site where Massey is planning to begin mining. As we cross a wide haul road cleared for coal trucks, I see a sign warning of the blasting to come. A few miles farther on, we are speeding under unusually tall sassafras trees, and then we dip down to a small clearing where the trail, an old logging road, ends. The autumn color along the ridgetops abruptly drops off at a man-made “highwall,” a steep precipice where half of the mountain has been sliced away by explosives. We climb off our ATVs and walk to its edge, where the deciduous broadleaf forest plunges down into a cratered emptiness that looks like nothing so much as a bombing range.

A hundred feet below, the entire Brushy Fork watershed has been buried beneath one of the largest slurry impoundment ponds in the world. The black ooze called slurry, or sludge, is the toxic byproduct left over when coal is cleaned for market. The Brushy Fork pond contains 6 billion gallons of slurry, six times the amount that recently broke through a dam in Tennessee. The nine-hundred-foot wall that holds all of this slurry back is the highest dam in North America. It is also a reminder that, in fact, “cheap” energy carries a very high cost that most Americans do not recognize because it is hidden in poor, remote places like the coal fields of Appalachia.

At the end of his influential book Collapse, Jared Diamond lists what he considers the twelve most serious environmental problems we face, the ones that would most likely cause a nation to topple. Of these twelve, ten — deforestation, species loss, erosion, coal-burning, harm to underground aquifers, misuse of sunlight, toxic chemicals, alien species, global warming, and overconsumption — can be tied directly to mountaintop removal strip mining. A wind farm, by contrast, could begin ameliorating every one of them. There is certainly still an environmental impact, and there is some troubling evidence suggesting that bat populations are declining in some places because of wind turbines (bats like to mate at high altitudes). That said, I would direct wind critics to its alternative: this slurry pond and the miles of leveled mountains and toxic mine sites all around it.

I look up at the ridgelines beyond the slurry pond and try to imagine them covered with wind turbines — 220 of them staggered along the peaks and side spurs of Coal River Mountain for thirty-six miles. A mere 267 acres would have to be cleared for the turbines, compared to the 6,450 acres that would be lost to mountaintop removal, and with a wind farm, the nine miles of streams that would be buried by mountaintop removal would remain healthy and full of life. I decide the tall white turbines would look quite elegant spinning slowly above the treeline. They would stand like sentinels, guarding the mountain from bulldozers and trucks carrying explosives.

A few days before my visit, Noerpel had done some independent research at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and found that Massey, in its rush to start mining up here, had not received approval for revisions to its permit. The understaffed DEP — whose job, in effect, Noerpel was doing — issued a statement that any blasting would be illegal. Coal River Mountain had been granted, in Rory McIlmoil’s words, “a stay of execution.”

Even if Massey did start blasting along this ridgeline, the majority of the strongest wind is farther southeast. And while Massey has also leased the mineral rights beneath that part of the mountain, there is still time to find a developer to turn that wind into energy and profits. But, as Noerpel says, “Once Massey Energy gets started, they’re hard to stop.” He lets out a rueful laugh. “They’re hard to stop anyway.”

I DROP MATT NOERPEL off at the modest Coal River Mountain Watch office and follow Coal River Road along a narrow valley floor framed by steep ridgelines. The road ends at the home of Lorelei Scarbro, the community coordinator for the Coal River Wind Project. Scarbro lives in a modest wooden house built by her late husband and surrounded in part by a small orchard they planted together. She wears her graying hair cut short and she doesn’t seem much given to small talk. People around here know and trust her. Still, organizing isn’t easy in a place where Massey holds sway and where the air is thick with intimidation; some activists I’ve talked to say they have received anonymous calls warning that a family member employed by Massey might be fired if the activism doesn’t stop.

Scarbro got started by making a large batch of apple butter in a hundred-year-old copper pot and taking jars of it door to door. Soon there was enough support for the wind farm to begin holding meetings in Rebecca Chapel, the same small church Robert Kennedy visited in 1968.

Scarbro distills her organizing goal down to this: “We’re trying to save the community.”

Her own property borders Coal River Mountain and sits right below the ridgelines that Massey Energy is proposing to flatten. This rolling land was handed down through her husband’s family, many of whom are buried in the hillside cemetery you can see from Scarbro’s front porch. Up behind the cemetery rises Pond Knob, one of the highest ridges on Coal River Mountain. It would generate the most megawatts of wind energy, and it also holds the greatest lodes of coal. Like many deep miners, Scarbro’s husband died from black lung after working thirty-five years underground. Now Lorelei Scarbro worries that she could develop silicosis if Massey starts blasting apart the thick layers of sandstone — the “overburden” — that lie between the top of the mountain and the thin seams of coal below.

The off-site damage caused by mountaintop removal strip mining is enormous. A recent EPA study found that 95 percent of streams near surface mines had been degraded and contaminated by sedimentation and the leaching of heavy metals. Many mountain families rely on private wells for their drinking water, and many of those are cracked and poisoned by the blasting. It’s not uncommon, Scarbro told me, for her neighbors who live around active mining to find black water running through their taps. And to make matters worse, coal companies are allowed to inject mining waste laden with heavy metals into old underground mines, which many suspect is seeping into the water supply (the EPA recently denied this, even while admitting to having done no research into the matter). Highly abnormal levels of kidney failure have been reported throughout the community of Prenter Hollow, just west of Scarbro’s place; an eight-year-old child developed a kidney stone, and a sixteen year old died of cancer. The DEP denied that there had ever been underground injections of mine waste in that community until Bobbie Mitchell of Coal River Mountain Watch produced a document to the contrary. When someone from the DEP asked Mitchell where he found such a document, Mitchell replied, “Your office.”

All of this often leads outsiders to ask the question that makes Scarbro angriest: Why don’t you move?

The simplest answer is that, once mountaintop removal begins, those who live around it can’t move because their property loses nearly all of its value. But the question is insulting and condescending on a deeper level. It implies that the culture of Appalachia, so rooted in a sense of place, is of little value compared to cheap energy. Standing beside her late husband’s headstone, under a large chestnut oak, Scarbro says, “We mountain people feel a connectedness to the land. It’s a survival instinct. It’s hard to explain that to people who are not attached to the place where they live.”

The question shouldn’t be, Why don’t you move?, but What kind of economy will preserve this community?

The answer, I think, can be found right here, where the watersheds of Appalachia could serve as a model for a new economy. By its very nature, a watershed is self-sufficient, symbiotic, conservative, decentralized, and diverse. It circulates its own wealth over and over. It generates no waste and does not “externalize” the cost of “production” onto other watersheds, other streams and valleys. In a watershed, all energy is renewable and all resource use is sustainable.

The watershed economy is the exact opposite of a strip mine. It purifies air and water, holds soil in place, enriches humus, and sequesters carbon. That is to say, a watershed economy improves the land and thus improves the lives of the people who inhabit that particular place. It is an economy based not on the unsustainable, shortsighted logic of never-ending growth, which robs the future to meet the needs of the present, but rather on maintaining the health, well-being, stability, and conviviality of the community. To paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, the watershed offers us an operating manual we should have been reading long ago.

AFTER LEAVING Lorelei Scarbro’s, I pass a barn along Coal River Road, where a fading metal sign reads: prove you are against coal mining. turn off your electricity. It doesn’t surprise me, nor does it surprise me that some of the more visible voices of Coal River Mountain Watch have received death threats and encountered other forms of intimidation (A sign on Scarbro’s door reads, warning: trespassers will be shot. survivors will be shot again.) To many living outside the Appalachian coal fields, blowing the top off a mountain seems ludicrous, an act of industrial aggression wholly lacking in subtlety or nuance. But things aren’t that simple in communities where most jobs come from coal. In Raleigh County, some people feel that to call for the end of strip mining is to take food from their children’s mouths. They become angry, and the industry only stokes their belief that environmentalists are to blame for declining jobs and persistent poverty.

One of the more inspiring aspects of the wind farm proposal is that it has the potential to break the long and frustrating impasse in the jobs-versus-environment debate. In addition to the construction and maintenance jobs, the wind farm could potentially bring far more mining jobs to Coal River Mountain. While turbines staggered along its ridgetops would stave off mountaintop removal, a highly mechanized form of mining that requires few workers (less than 1 percent of West Virginia’s employment comes from surface mining), there would remain the opportunity to extract the region’s low-sulfur coal through underground mining, which could create far more jobs.

“We’re not telling them they can’t mine,” Bo Webb told me. “We’ll put the windmills on top, they can mine coal underground, and everybody wins, right?” It would seem so.

The problem, from the coal operator’s perspective, is that if too many people see wind turbines spinning across the peaks of Coal River Mountain, they might stop believing the industry’s hundred-year-old canard that coal is the region’s only hope. In the forty-five years since Lyndon Johnson stood on a miner’s porch to welcome him into the Great Society, central Appalachia’s poverty rate has barely moved from 30 percent, the highest rate in the nation. Historian Harry Caudill used to say that poverty was eastern Kentucky’s only tourist industry. In February of this year, ABC’s Diane Sawyer took her viewers on that tour once again. It was the most watched episode of 20/20 in five years; Americans apparently like poverty tours — the trashed-out trailers, the mothers and miners hooked on painkillers, the kids with bad teeth. But what wasn’t on display, because it is harder to find and to film, is the systemic cause of that poverty — namely, a single industry that has dominated the region for a century and fought every attempt to raise the region’s standard of living. Central Appalachia has stayed poor because it was made to stay poor by an industry that broke unions, bought off politicians, and despoiled the land and water.

Thus the potential of the wind farm reaches far beyond Coal River Mountain, because it could finally lay to rest Big Coal’s false promises by offering a more compelling future — a future where jobs are not based on a finite resource, they do not cause black lung or black water, and they contribute to the solution, not the cause, of the climate crisis. After all, once Sweden decided to abandon a carbon-based economy, its GDP began to grow three times as fast as ours because of investment in alternative energy. Van Jones, special advisor for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and author of The Green Collar Economy, has shown that “we can fight pollution and poverty at the same time.” In Oakland, he helped create entry-level jobs for poorer people that had them performing energy audits and improving energy efficiency in homes. While replacing coal with wind and solar power is obviously crucial, Jones points out that “the main piece of technology in a green economy is a caulk gun.”

Or a shovel. Patrick Angel, who heads up the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, has called for a massive tree-planting effort across all of the abandoned mine land throughout the mountains. Fast-growing willow trees could be planted and harvested for biofuels, while slower growing hardwoods could support a sustainable forestry movement while also contributing to the emerging carbon-credit market. Now that the dream of corn ethanol has passed, other abandoned mine sites could be planted with a more promising biomass such as switch grass, a high-yield perennial that thrives on marginal land.

What about mounting solar panels on south-facing valley fills, of which Appalachia has plenty? Rory McIlmoil has done some computations and figures that 20 percent of West Virginia’s energy could come from thirty-thousand acres of barren mine land fitted out with photovoltaics. Energy from those panels, coupled with the wind energy from the mountaintops, could be fed into a direct-current “smart grid” so that the region’s sources of energy become radically decentralized, along with the profits from that energy. Then thuggish corporations like Massey Energy would no longer wield so much power or cause so much havoc and heartbreak.

Still, change comes slow to coal country. On the same November day that the United States elected a new president who had made renewable energy a fundamental part of his campaign, West Virginia governor Joe Manchin easily won re-election as well. Days later, Massey began blasting near the ridgetop where Matt Noerpel had taken me four-wheeling.

Bo Webb lives in the valley below. Webb, who served as a Marine in Vietnam, sat down and started writing a letter to President Obama. “As I write, I brace myself for another round of nerve-wracking explosives being detonated above my home,” Webb began. He said he was out of options. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned a prior court ruling that required thorough environmental impact studies on land permitted for mining, and on his way out the door, George W. Bush had overturned a rule prohibiting mining around streams.

“I beg you to re-light our flame of hope and honor,” Webb wrote the president, “and immediately stop the coal companies from blasting so near our homes and endangering our lives. As you have said, we must find another way than blowing off the tops of mountains.”

On March 24, two weeks after Webb sent his letter to President Obama, a seismic wave rolled across Appalachia, and it had nothing to do with explosives. The Environmental Protection Agency, in an abrupt reversal of policy, announced that it would re-examine all mine permits that might violate the Clean Water Act — including almost all the permits on Coal River Mountain. In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Lisa Jackson, the new head of the EPA, wrote that she had “considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams.”

When I saw the headline “EPA Signals Mining Crackdown” in the Lexington Herald-Leader, the words almost didn’t make sense. They had really done it. The activists of Appalachia had actually beaten back Don Blankenship and opened a clearing for a serious consideration of wind development. It was by no means a final victory; this battle won’t end quickly or cleanly. But more good news came on March 31, when U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin issued an injunction that voided certain valley fill permits and blocked the Army Corps of Engineers from issuing new permits for valley fills in southern West Virginia. The message was clear: the Corps was finally going to have to answer to someone other than coal operators. Suddenly, that four-letter word planted in Joe Manchin’s flowerbed back in Charleston seemed not so frivolous. It was beginning to look like it might hold its own against the forces of Big Coal. It might even prevail.

Forty-two years ago, Wendell Berry pondered the concept of hope while camping in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, which the Army Corps of Engineers was then threatening to dam. “A man cannot despair,” Berry concluded, “if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.” To imagine — it is perhaps the most powerful moral force we posses. It maps a future that is worth finding, a place where we want to dwell. Then it calls us to enact that vision. It could happen on a mountaintop in West Virginia. It could happen in the heart’s own private landscape. It could happen.

Erik Reece is an American writer, the author of two books of nonfiction Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia and An American Gospel: On Family, History, and The Kingdom of God,  and numerous essays and magazine articles, published in Harper’s MagazineThe Nation, and Orion Magazine. He also maintains a blog “The Future We Want” for True/Slant.


  1. So,what is evebody doing to support the activists who are practicing civil disobedience to stop nountaintop removal??”Democracy Now”covered the story yesterday(6/24/09).Amy had a photo of James Hansen,a participant.

  2. Certainly some worthy sentiments, but the coda at the end is more balderdash: “We can imagine,” “We can dream,” we can think nice thoughts, we can pet a squirrel – but the planet’s environment is being run by our human social institutions, our supersystem, and it is slicing and dicing and discarding and carving as we entertain our sweet visions.
    Protest and envision all you want, but be ready, like James Hansen, to view the sociology of toxic politics with clear appreciation for our predicament, not with the God glasses of Wendell Berry.

  3. While organizing to oppose a “biomass plant” – i.e. forest incinerator – in my town, those in Cold River,West Virginia inspire me. They not only oppose mountain range removal but are claiming their vision by fighting for wind power. We must all radically reduce our carbon footprint and work together for solar and wind power. Here in western Massachusetts we must also change our state and federal policies that claim “biomass” deserves “renewable” credits and eliminate unsustainable methods of electricity generation.

  4. Here’s my favorite nugget from this piece:

    “To imply, for one, that Massey is a “responsible” producer of energy represents a considerable disregard for the facts.”

    Amen. And this last week we saw the Massey crowd’s disregard for peaceful protest, too, when a coal family wife crossed a picket line on June 23rd to hit Judy Bonds in the face, which aggravated an old injury and landed Judy in the hospital. Video here:


    Judy is a Goldman Environmental Prize winning activist, and hence a big target in WV, and she’s also the director of a gutsy Orion Grassroots Network member group, Coal River Mountain Watch in Charleston. http://www.crmw.net

    Orion Grassroots Network

  5. From many of the supporters of wind energy in the mountains, there is an initial disregard for the mountains. While we may be building more sustainable energy for the energy-hungry cities, we may be destroying the integrity of the mountains and what makes them so beautiful and wild. Its so tricky to find a happy medium because while we may be promoting sustainability, we are ruining the ridgetops that haven’t been poisoned with the stain of development.

    Then again, I would surely prefer wind farms on mountains to mountains blown up for coal mining. I just hope that some people reading this might consider the ramifications of even the “good” sources of energy.

    Whenever I am hiking out near Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, you can see an ugly hotel over on a distant ridge, which ruins your day. I hope that some day we are not reluctantly looking at windmills the same way.

  6. Hats off for a great article. Nuances of the difficulties of changing attitudes and practices in a culture are not glossed over, but the point is made.

    Key for me is the part about local people and places paying the price for the casual over-use of energy and resources elsewhere. Also the section about jobs in the coal industry depending on an industry that shows scant disregard for the people that they employ, or the long term health of the community that they are a part of.

    Most of us have absolutely no idea of where our electricity comes from. We export responsibility for our use of power to others, and this is especially true of large projects, whether they be coal, nuclear, hydro or, yes, wind.

    I have researched the impact of large scale wind projects. It is instructive to note that many investors in wind power are well versed in energy economics, and that education has been earned by, guess how, working in coal, oil, hydro, nuclear.

    Large industrial projects are large industrial projects.

    However – there always is a however – solar, wind, and certain types of biomass projects all provide benefits with much, much less impact than others.

    That does not mean that we should give cart blanche approval for these projects.

    Wind power on a large scale requires roads, transmission lines, land. If we do not scrutinize these projects to minimize the impacts we will end up with roads that are highway widths, poorly drained, causing erosion and soil loss, just as poorly planned roads have done since logging was started on the West Coast (just to pick an obvious example) and elsewhere.

    Run of the river hydro has great potential to provide power and actually improve the environment by providing off channel habitat in storage ponds and channels, for fish and other species. In rivers that have felt the impact of settlement such habitat has often been drained or filled for farmland, housing and urbanization. But here in BC many such projects are just another excuse for building damns (sic – intended), diverting streams and taking from nature in ways that are still extractive. Much as the biofuels/forest eating power system mentioned above.

    Biofuels – yes, some types are great. Growing corn to fuel SUV’s is a losing proposition on many fronts, from boosting prices for food on world markets, to the abysmal energy conversion ratio. Ask this question of those who would take primary forest products and chip them to be burned in a power plant: are we still dumping all our kitchen waste underground? For crying out loud – the industries that will actually help will carefully select their feedstocks, so that a net benefit is given to multiple problems, not just one.

    Here again is the crux: we cannot continue to treat the earth and its inhabitants like one huge sink for our “external” debits, whether it be to soak up our pollution, or pay for its products with wasted lungs, human relationships, or river valleys.

    And using the language of the environmental movement – “clean, green coal?” – to mask the same old, same old will simply lead us to the same old place.


  7. One more thing:

    I have watched the forest industry in BC since I was a lad of 14 in 1973. Many times we have seen confrontations between environmentalists and loggers, millworkers and truck drivers.

    In every case, where forests have been preserved, there are at least jobs for those who are willing to back away from the feller-bunchers and trade it for a lightweight tractor, or grab a pair of hiking boots. Where the forest companies “won” and managed to continue with extractive forest practices, mills are shut, towns are shuttered, lives decimated, and forests simply removed.

    Sustainable ways of living, especially forestry, are necessarily local, essentially provide more, longer lasting, meaningful work, and provide more money for local communities. Studies are legion. The data is in.

    I am afraid that I once had some sympathy for even that solid woman who marched up to Judy Bonds for a good wallup. However misguided, she was fighting for her family and her community.

    But no more, no way, no how. She is no longer arguing for “Jobs for our families!” She is now simply saying, “Jobs for MY family, and to hell with yours! And never mind about your face, too!”

  8. Hallelujah. Loretta Lynn was “Proud to be a Coal-Miner’s Daughter,” not because of the coal company, but because of the determination to make something good with what you’ve got. West Virginia is standing up again.

  9. I wonder Mr. Brown, if you could provide me with some information on the studies you referenced about sustainable foretsty initiatives?

  10. Some books:
    Ecoforestry: the Art and Science of Sustainable Forestry; Ed Alan Drengson and Duncan Taylor; New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, 1997.
    The Redesigned Forest; Chris Maser; Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, 1990.
    Touch Wood: BC Forests at the Crossroads; Ed Ken Drushka, Bob Nixon and Ray Travers; Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, BC, 1993.

    Also: a great survey of global timber markets and trends in same. Published in 1995, but many of the forecasts are coming true.
    Logging The Globe; M. Patricia Marchak; McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1995.

    And a search for “Sustainable Forest Management” yields millions of results…

    But closer to the topic at hand:
    It seems ridiculous to me that the coal companies are not restoring the mountains as they go: piling the till behind them in at least hillocks, throwing the soil and organic matter over their shoulders, so to speak, and restoring high value forests with hardwood/softwood/shrub mixes. This would at least slow runoff, mitigating floods, and provide jobs for the future in logging and milling high value lumber.

    But that would… er… cost money and time. And that, as we have seen from the actions of the companies involved, would cut into… er… profits.

    And it takes it for granted that 1) mountain top removals is necessary, and 2) that we can continue to burn coal, both iffy propositions for lots of reasons.


  11. I find it very strange that environmentalists who quote Wendell Berry endorse industrial wind turbine developments. Support for big wind is like a religious belief on the part of environmentalists and it is disturbing that people who pride themselves on their thoughtfulness could be so snookered. Large-scale wind turbines are economically inefficient and our taxes subsidize them. They are just another get-rich-quick scheme for developers, and will NOT lead to the decomissioning of any coal plants. It’s just a fact. Only people who have not lived near a turbine development could see them as a “green” solution. For an articulate and compelling perspective, please see: Chris Bolgiano’s Open Letter To President Obama http://www.saveouralleghenyridges.org/component/content/article/39-the-truth-about-industrial-wind/62-chris-bolgianos-open-letter-to-president-obama

    Solutions to solve the energy crisis that do not destroy our natural world: 1. energy conservation 2. converting conventional agriculture to organic and 3. mini grids. Here is an article on minigrids: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/137/beyond-the-grid.html

    To support wind turbines is like saying, “I love the American profligate way of life and I will do anything to see it continue.” Isn’t it time we stop finding new ways to rape the earth to run people’s airconditioners, and instead change lifestyles?

  12. To echo some of the above comments, habitat devastation, on all levels, is sustained by underlying socioeconomics. We, as a nation and a global society, will continue to invent new ways to consume power – at a breathtaking pace. Once all of the plains and mountaintops are covered with wind turbines and all of the deserts are covered with solar panels: what will we do? We must consider a future in which we are entirely surrounded by energy extraction devices. Since behavioral changes seem unlikely, it appears that the most likely path to success lies in new a technological paradigm (high temp superconductors, point of use generation…) that can only come with a huge investment in research.

  13. I do not think that Erik Reece is merely “quoting” Wendell Berry here. The two know each other, and the former’s work is deeply influenced by the latter—which is to say that I’m sure Mr. Reece understands the complexities involved in endorsing industrial wind turbine developments while at the same time referencing Mr. Berry in such an endorsement. One might as well criticize him for driving a pickup truck and quoting Berry, or allowing his work to be published on the Internet and quoting Berry. And one would do just as well to denounce Wendell Berry for using a weed whacker from time to time, while at the same time writing essays about the goodness of scythes. This is something we are all tangled in.

    Clearly—from this essay and his other writings—Mr. Reece does not think, or suggest, that wind turbines are The Answer that most everyone seems to be demanding. They may not even be A Temporary Solution. But they at least seem favorable to having mountaintops blown up, and may, in bringing attention to the matter, lead the way to better and more lasting answers after all. Hell yeah.

  14. Is anyone reading and/or writing about this article doing it without electricity? Modern American life without coal is hypocrisy. For better or worse, American life as we know it would come to a hault if the coal stopped burning. Everyone loves electricity until they see a coal mine. Just like everyone loves meat until they see a stockyard. Ignorance is bliss.

  15. I think Leo Tolstoy gave as good an answer as has been given to similar hypocrisy charges some time ago: “‘What about you, Lev Nikolayevich, you preach very well, but do you carry out what you preach?’ This is the most natural of questions and one that is always asked of me; it is usually asked victoriously, as though it were a way of stopping my mouth. ‘You preach, but how do you live.’ And I answer that I do not preach, that I am not able to preach, although I passionately wish to. I can preach only through my actions, and my actions are vile… And I answer that I am guilty, and vile, and worthy of contempt for my failure to carry them out…

    “Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies. If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side? If it is not the right way, then show me another way; but if I stagger and lose the way, you must help me, you must keep me on the true path, just as I am ready to support you. Do not mislead me, do not be glad that I have got lost, do not shout out joyfully ‘Look at him! He said he was going home, but there he is crawling into a bog!’ No, do not gloat, but give me your help and support.”*

    Thoreau likened hypocrisy to “chaff which I find it difficult to separate from my wheat.” Not only difficult, but probably impossible, I’d say.

    Or perhaps it is that Thoreau and Tolstoy and all of us concerned with the state of things have greatly misunderstood the nature of hypocrisy. Is it hypocritical to love mountains and at once rely on the forces responsible for blowing them up? Maybe. But then, hypocrisy is the practice of finding of all sorts of faults in others while supposing oneself to be pure. I understand, as many other participants in the conversation on mountaintop removal understand, the degree to which I contribute to the sustenance of things I hate. It deeply troubles me. And I do not think that it is hypocrisy, just as I do not think that Tolstoy, Thoreau, Erik Reece, or any of these online commentators are awash in hypocrisy.

    Call it paradox. Call it complexity. Or, as Mr. Reece recently set me to thinking, call it common ground.

    (*From one of Leo Tolstoy’s personal letters, as quoted by Philip Yancey in Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church)

  16. Be careful what you ask for. Industrial wind is not benign on the earth or in the air. There is a better way (http://www.allianceforresponsibleenergypolicy.com/) known as distributed generation (DG), its simple giving power back to the people (http://www.bayjournalnewsservice.com/Power.html). We made the same mistake while embroiled in a battle to save our rural alpine valley in Colorado from oil and gas development. We advocated for solar as a clean alternative until we learned that industrial solar is not what we thought, that it would require complete destruction of tens of thousands of acres of short-grass prairie, wetlands and prime farmlands and miles upon miles of new ($1.5 million/mile) transmission lines running through our schools and neighbors off-grid homesteads. Industrial renewable energy is being driven by the same folks that brought us global warming.

  17. Hannah,

    All I can say is that all “industrial renewable energy” schemes are not the same.

    For use in Appalachia, there is one technology that is able to use the “mountain tops” that have already been degraded. It doesn’t have to be on top of a ridge or a pristine mountain, but can be on a lower, already degraded area.

    It uses the earth surface itself as a “solar collector” and doesn’t block it with panels or involve windmill towers and blades making unbearable “whooshing” noises witih blades that also kill bats.

    Read about it at http://vortexengine.ca and also link to my article at scitizen via the “Endorsement” tab.

  18. I admire Reece’s work a lot, but he, more than anyone, should be wary of the type of thinking that too easily reduces the wonders of a mountaintop to a certain amount of energy. Mountaintop turbines are indeed preferable to mountaintop removal coal mining, but they both result in a radically altered Appalachian skyline and (quite likely) a radically altered Appalachian ecology. They might be on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they’re still on the same one. I particularly worry that wind companies have been granted a certain moral authority that will allow them to repeat old exploitations of rural America. I worry they will use buzzwords such as “sustainability” and “energy independence” to open up a river of revenue out of rural areas, while only shooting a comparative trickle back in. For instance, in Central PA the new wind initiatives are not designed for local power but to provide power for the metropolis. Companies are not trying to win community solidarity for the projects but to bulldoze them through without even building a consensus among those who must live in the turbines’ shadows. In the end, I tend to think that wind mills belong on the open plains and on the open waters, not on artificially flattened mountaintops. But I know that sacrifices must be made in the name of sustainability, and I fully expect rural America to bear the brunt of those sacrifices (as it has for so long). For once, though, I’d like to see it share in more of the real benefits. I’d like the energy to be produced for local use. I’d like community members to have real ownership in the projects, as shareholders, and I would like them to have a continued say in the windfield’s operation and maintenance. After all, these projects are heavily subsidized by the government. Isn’t it only right for the taxpayers most directly influenced by such a project to have a real stake in it? I want sustainability AND empowering rural development. For wind companies, just like coal companies, can use their corporate clout and government support to rake in diamonds while handing out dollars.

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