Last night I did our weekly grocery run and in doing so I have to pass over a bridge that goes over a Norfolk Southern rail yard. These rail lines supply the Newport News Coal Terminal with a steady supply of coal. Hampton Roads is the largest coal terminal exporter in the United States and one of the largest in the world *. This coal goes over seas to many different countries for various reasons but I can’t help but think of the mountains this coal came from as I see them passing by in mile after mile of railroad cars.
This coal is blasted out of the Appalachian Mountains in mountaintop removal surface mining. In this form of mining, as the name implies, the top of a mountain is literally blasted and hauled away. The veins of coal are so small that a traditional mine would not be able to economically get to the coal. So in the interest of economics and efficiency companies blast a mountain away just to get the coal. What is left is the discards of rock and soil and those tend to just get pushed into the valley and left. This allows dangerously high levels of toxins that were once trapped forever to be released into the rivers and streams and then into the drinking water. Killing plants, animals, and even people. I’m not going to go into the details of the mining process but you can read more here.
Why do we go to such great lengths to extract this coal and suffer the consequences of the process?….is it worth it?…does the benefits outweigh the cost? The first question is easy really…profit…plain and simple coal is big money. It always has been big. With the industrial revolution coal drove the “progress” of this nation. Now as we have moved into a more technological revolution coal is still used to generate power but not as much as it once was. We have seen how unsafe it is and have found other ways to generate our power. As other countries are growing and going through their own industrial/technological revolutions they are demanding more and more coal. China comes to mind but there are others for sure.
The next 2 questions I suppose are all in one’s perspective. In my opinion no it isn’t worth it. We are taking a limited resource from our land in an unethical way and selling it to other countries that use it to facilitate the making of goods that they then sell to us. It would be one thing if the coal was removed in a more ethical and holistic way but it is not. We are poisoning our people and nature to gain money. Money that only a few really see or benefit from. Somewhere along the way the social responsibility has eroded away and been replaced with greed. Wendell Berry said:
“In the loss of skill, we lose stewardship; in losing stewardship we lose fellowship; we become outcasts from the great neighborhood of Creation. It is possible – as our experience in this good land shows – to exile ourselves from Creation, and to ally ourselves with the principle of destruction – which is, ultimately, the principle of nonentity. It is to be willing in general for being to not-be. And once we have allied ourselves with that principle, we are foolish to think that we can control the results. (pg. 303, The Gift of Good Land)”
― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
In Genesis 1:28 you find “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (KJV). This passage, often to referred to as the dominion mandate, has been used to almost justify our right to do things like mountaintop removal mining. This passage is interpreted in a God says I am to “rule” over nature therefore it is mine and I can do what I want. The problem is that this passage is one of a charge to responsibility. Just as the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 14:30 the master (God) is charging his servants (man) to take care of and be responsible for his property (creation). In this parable the master expects the servants to be good stewards of his property.
Stewardship is greatly lacking in this world. In the quest for bigger and better…we have lost our understanding of stewardship and how to take care of what is given to us. When something breaks we throw it away and get another instead of repairing it. We choose cheap and poorly made goods over those that are well built and will last a lifetime. We would rather buy a $25 axe from India, that was made with most likely US coal, with a fiberglass handle that can’t be repaired if broken with steel that is brittle and cheap; over an axe that is hand forged from quality steel with a fixable hickory handle. Sure the quality axe will cost you $120 but your great grandchildren will be using it when the cheap one has had to be replaced 20 times. (Can you tell I was looking at axes last night)
Going back to the coal we are whoreing away out natural resources and destroying the land for the sake of money to buy cheap disposable goods that came from overseas and made (at least in part) with the coal we sold to make the money. The icing on the cake as it may be is we are disposing of these goods into landfills and they are harming the land and those around it. I am not saying that coal is evil but the way it is mined is foolish and will cause irrespirable damage in the long term. Yes there are better ways of mining…even better sources of power (some just as harmful if not more however)…the bottom line is we must become better stewards of the land and resources we have been given. If we don’t take care of what we have we will lose it one way or another.
** Images from website http://www.ohvec.org/galleries/mountaintop_removal/019/index.html
*** Image of coal terminal at beginning of post from the Dominion Terminal Associates website http://www.dominionterminal.com/Blending%20Options.htm