If the Obama administration is unwilling or unable to stop the massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, can we honestly believe they will be able to phase out coal emissions at the level necessary to stop climate change?        –Dr. James Hansen, June 22, 2009

Welcome to Copenhagen, U.S.A.

On Dec. 7, the opening day of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Americans from around the country will converge for a historic protest at climate change ground zero for our nation — the Appalachian coalfields.

At the same time 65 heads of state and other world leaders and environmental regulators view a special Google Earth tour of the importance of Coal River Mountain in West Virginia at the Copenhagen conference, leading anti-mountaintop removal activists and citizens groups — with Robert Kennedy, Jr. reportedly in their ranks — will demand an end to mountaintop removal mining on Coal River Mountain and across Appalachia.

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Their target: The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, in Charleston, W.Va., the embarrassingly inept and Big Coal-ridden state agency that has overseen one of the greatest environmental and climate change disasters in American history: Mountaintop removal’s destruction over 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests in our nation’s carbon sink of Appalachia.

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The American citizens at climate change ground zero will not be alone in the coalfields.

As a wave of climate change protests rock London on Dec. 5, and throughout the world on the Dec. 12 Global Day of Action, the citizens groups and coal mining communities descending on the Big Coal-strangled halls of governmental incompetence are drawing a line in the sand at Coal River Mountain. 

Site of the Coal River Wind Project, the most symbolic clean energy project in the nation, Coal River Mountain is the last intact mountain in the historic range, and an area that has been plundered by mountaintop removal and left in ruins. Despite regulatory violations, Massey Energy began clear cutting the lush hardwood forests and setting off blasts for a massive 6,600 acre mountaintop removal operation on Coal River Mountain last month.

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And just why should Coal River Mountain — and the Appalachian coalfields — be considered climate change ground zero for the U.S.?

The carbon connection: As an advisor on the Presidential Climate Action Project, and a leading environmental scholar and entrepreneur, David Orr has noted, “To permanently destroy millions of acres of Appalachia in order to extract maybe twenty years of coal is not just stupid; it is a derangement at a scale for which we as yet do not have adequate words, let alone the good sense and the laws to stop it.” In a major paper, The Carbon Connection, Orr recounted a trip to a mountaintop removal site in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia and its link to our climate fate:

Nearly a thousand miles separates the coalfields of West Virginia from New Orleans and the Gulf coast, yet they are a lot closer than that. The connection is carbon. Coal is mostly carbon, and for every ton burned, 3.6 tons of CO2 eventually enters the atmosphere, raising global temperatures, warming oceans and thereby creating bigger storms, melting ice, and raising sea levels. For every ton of coal extracted from the mountains, perhaps a 100 tons of what is tellingly called “overburden” is dumped, burying steams and filling the valleys and hollows of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. And between the hills of Appalachia and the sinking land of the Louisiana coast, tens of thousands of people living downwind from coal-fired power plants die prematurely each year from inhalation of small particles of smoke laced with heavy metals that penetrate deeply into lungs.

More complete accounting of the costs of coal would also include the rising tide of damage and insurance claims attributable to climate change. Some say that if we don’t burn coal the economy will collapse and we will all have to go back to the caves. But with wind and solar power growing by more than 25 percent per year and the technology of energy efficiency advancing rapidly, we have good options that make burning coal unnecessary. And before long, we will wish that we had not destroyed so much of the capacity of the Appalachian forests and soils to absorb the carbon that makes for bigger storms and more severe heat waves and droughts.

Coal River Mountain is a tipping point in climate change policy: As NASA climatologist James Hansen has pointed out for years, “we must move rapidly to carbon-free energy to avoid handing our children a planet that has passed climate tipping points.” Calling mountaintop removal “an undeniably catastrophic way of mining,” Hansen issued a personal plea to President Obama this summer to halt the blasting of Coal River Mountain, as part of a larger vision for the rapid phase-out of coal emissions now:

The Obama administration is being forced into a political compromise. It has sacrificed a strong position on mountaintop removal in order to ensure the support of coal-state legislators for a climate bill. The political pressures are very real. But this is an approach to coal that defeats the purpose of the administration’s larger efforts to fight climate change, a sad political bargain that will never get us the change we need on mountaintop removal, coal or the climate. Coal is the linchpin in mitigating global warming, and it’s senseless to allow cheap mountaintop-removal coal while the administration is simultaneously seeking policies to boost renewable energy.

The coal barons at Massey Energy are not only destroying Coal River Mountain, but leading the anti-climate change propaganda campaign: As head of the fourth largest coal producer, and a gleeful mountaintop removal detonator, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and his company’s notorious denial of climate change and bizarre global warming-denying shows are the stuff of bad vaudeville. But Blankenship’s wrath in Appalachia, and especially in the Coal River Valley, has not only resulted in record penalties for mining violations, and the devastation of the region, but placed him in the forefront of Big Coal’s refusal to accept any compromises in cap ‘n trade legislation. In a recent interview on stopping climate change legislation in the Senate, Blankenship referred to “the hoax and the Ponzi scheme of global warming.”

Seventy foot coal slurry tidal wave: Blasting at Coal River Mountain risks a climate change catastrophe: Blasting within a football field of the class “C” Brushy Fork impoundment, one of the largest and potentially weakest coal slurry impoundments in the nation, Massey Energy is engaging in a blatant act of aggression against besieged coalfield residents. According to their own evacuation reports, a break in the coal slurry impoundment would result in certain injury or death for the nearly 1,000 residents downslope in the valley. Some area residents would have less than 15 minutes to escape a 72-foot tidal wave of coal slurry. 2009-11-23-Picture4.png

Coal River Mountain, like Copenhagen, is a battle over a clean energy or a regulated dirty energy future: As a study last year by Downstream Strategies noted, an industrial wind farm on Coal River Mountain would provide more jobs, tax revenues, and electricity over the long-term than the current mountaintop removal operation, which will exhaust the coal seams within 17 years. The study concluded:

The economic results of the mountaintop removal and wind scenarios stand in stark contrast. For mountaintop removal, the cumulative external costs from coal production exceed the cumulative earnings in every year. Even without comparing it with the wind scenarios, the mountaintop removal scenario is not defensible from the perspective of Raleigh County citizens when considering just two externalities: excess deaths and illnesses, and environmental damage.

In contrast, both wind scenarios show cumulative earnings that exceed cumulative externalities in every year … The benefits of mountaintop removal mining would end after 17 years when the mining ends, but the costs of mountaintop removal mining are projected to continue due to the expected deaths and illnesses caused by the coal mining. In contrast, the benefits from the wind scenarios continue indefinitely.

The showdown at Copenhagen, U.S.A. is on: Dec. 7, 2 p.m., Charleston, W.Va.