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The Dirty, Destructive Truth Behind “Clean Coal”

Earthjustice's "Mountain Heroes" Campaign
Alexandra Cousteau | June 29, 2012

© Earthjustice

We live on a water planet. This transparent liquid is the foundation of all life on Earth. It ensures our survival, fosters our development, and enriches the cultures of our civilizations. Yet despite the best efforts of scientists, filmmakers, and explorers, like my father and grandfather, our generation knows little more than theirs did about its ocean depths or the fragile scarcity of our freshwater resources.

Water is Earth’s great storyteller. It is the mark of sustainability in a society and the telltale measure of our ability to maintain balance. What we do on land ripples throughout our water systems, and it is within these telling ripples—the shrinking surfaces of our ice stores, the erratic runnings of our rivers, the shifting patterns of precipitation, and the rising of our seas—that we’ll feel the effects of climate change first. In the face of such a challenge, we can’t afford to divide over protecting fresh water or focusing on the world’s oceans, as though they are unrelated goals. If we are to solve any of our problems, we can’t continue to focus just on individual problems, such as the fragility of coral reefs, the scarcity of free-flowing river habitat, or the depletion of fish stocks. We have to return to the simple truth so many of us learned in grade school science courses: Our planet’s hydrosphere is a single, inter-connected system.

This realization was the beginning of a new era in my work—one recognizing that it is the “compartmentalized” understanding of water that has led to so many of the problems we face, and the poor management practices we’ve constructed as a society to address them. Confined to neat bubbles of discussion and management, we’ve failed to build and maintain intelligent infrastructure, and too often, we’ve completely destroyed the water-shaping ecosystems that could have provided sustainable solutions. It truly is time for us to redefine what it means to live on a water planet.

For this reason, I unequivocally extend my support to promoting the discussion on the dangers of mountaintop removal and raising awareness of its devastating impacts not only on the environment—but also the communities downstream. This issue connects all of the ill-conceived dots: our misguided and short-term energy policies, the lingering myth that somehow this dirty and climate-altering source of energy can be “clean,” and the environmental and social consequences of leveling mountains to extract coal to fuel our power plants which power our increasingly unsustainable society. We are filling our streams and choking-off the sources of our great Eastern rivers that millions of people depend upon. And in the process, we are marginalizing rural communities who are left in the wake of this destructive practice—their voice drowned out by the tons of rock rubble that are the remnants of the ancient mountains of Appalachia.

The practice of mountaintop removal is just another facet of a crumbling argument for “clean coal.” In 2010, Blue Legacy, the non-profit organization I founded, traveled to Tennessee to document the lingering consequences of the worst industrial spill, by volume, ever to take place in the United States: the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill. This disaster decimated communities and brought the freshwater ecosystems of the Emory and Clinch Rivers to the brink of collapse.

But, further upstream, at the beginning of the coal-energy nexus lifecycle, there is another spill taking place—one that is being condoned under the auspices of our government and regulators. I am talking about mountaintop removal, and the filling of the surrounding streams and wetlands that serve as the source of our great rivers—the lifeblood of our communities. And ever since former President George W. Bush created a loophole in the Clean Water Act in 2002, mining companies have been able to dump their toxic mining waste directly into the water—including the mountaintops of the majestic Appalachians.

This destructive practice has to stop. We are fragmenting our watersheds, destroying freshwater ecosystems, ruining people’s lives downstream, and accelerating our planet towards irreversible climate change by burning the coal extracted through this harmful process.

Water is the thread that connects us—we cannot allow it to be buried in the pursuit of shortsighted energy policies that, in the end, will undermine both our economy and our environment.