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Tuesday, June 3

When Mexican drug cartels destroy forests in Central America, it's contributing to global warming and forcing locals off their land; when U.S. coal mining companies do the same in Appalachia, it's cost effective

Mountaintop removal for strip-mining seams of coal has precipitated a full-scale humanitarian crisis in Appalachia. But one of the downsides of the technology is that it razes or otherwise destroys vast tracts of forest, both on the mountains and in the surrounds.

The coal companies always promise to put it all back together again after they've finished digging out the coal seams, but it doesn't work out that way. This on account of it's not possible to make a mountaintop look like it did before it's blown up and just as impossible to order up a mature forest from a tree nursery.

As to how many mountaintops we're talking about --oh, somewhere between 500-600 or so; I don't have the exact count as it stands today.  It's a lot of mountaintops. And a lot of destroyed forest.
  
If you're new to the topic of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, a good orientation is John Batchelor's interview last year with Jeff Biggers. Here's the link to the podcast of the interview.  Jeff discussed his book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, which recounts how Jeff's historically important 200-year old community in Southern Illinois was destroyed to make way for big coal's foray into mountaintop removal.
 
It's not only that one community; entire regions in Appalachia have been turned into ghost towns by the practice of blowing up mountaintops for coal strip mining. But Jeff's story puts a human face on the horrors that mountaintop removal have visited on the peoples of the Appalachian Mountains.

Oddly enough the issue of deforestation in the region has never gotten much attention from the Climate Change crowd.  Yet earlier this year, climate scientists and environmentalists the world over nearly had an aneurysm when the journal Science published data showing that various Mexican drug cartels, on the lam from the Mexican government's War on Drugs (aided by the U.S. government) had transferred their operations to Central American forests. This included using the slash and burn method of forest clearing to build roads and airport runways for transporting illicit drugs, and terrorizing or murdering the locals who protested the deforestation.

The result?  Poof!  Vast tracks of irreplaceable forest up in smoke.

But from all the uproar about the news one would think that some climate scientist would have said, 'Say, haven't they been doing the same thing in Appalachia, only with legal mumbo jumbo instead of AK-47s?'

Why yes, as a matter of fact they have, and with the full complicity of the U.S. government. And they've been doing it, on and off, for about 40 years.  Now, however, the long-term negative effects of mountaintop removal, which include the effects of highly toxic particles on human health, are becoming strikingly evident.  So now scientists are scrambling.  From the May 14 issue of the West Virginia Gazette -- the state of West Virginia being on the front lines of America's Coal War:
Study outlines overlooked impacts of mountaintop removal
By Ken Ward Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mountaintop removal is having frequently overlooked impacts on forests, biodiversity, climate and public health, and an updated federal review is needed to more fully examine those issues, according to a new study by government and university scientists.

The study warns that mountaintop removal is not only causing significant changes in the Appalachian topography, but also could be worsening the impacts of global warming.

Authors of the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, say that legal and regulatory focus on water quality impacts has led to less research on how mountaintop removal affects forests, soils, biodiversity and the mountains themselves.

"Evaluation of terrestrial impacts is needed to complement the growing literature on aquatic impacts in order for an environmental assessment of the practice to be comprehensive," states the paper, written by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, Rider University and West Virginia University.

The new study emerges this month, just as preliminary results are being released from a $15 million industry-funded research project started in part to examine mining company complaints about the EPA's crackdown on mountaintop removal permits and previous studies that outlined environmental and public health damage from the practice.

The EPA has sought to toughen permit reviews under the Clean Water Act to force the industry to reduce water-quality impacts, especially from the common practice of burying streams beneath huge rock and earth "valley fills."

The new government-funded study, though, outlines new concerns. For example, it says mining has created 640 distinct areas of mountaintop removal and 285 distinct valley-fill areas where mountains have been lowered by an average of more than 110 feet and valleys raised by an average of nearly 175 feet. In those areas, slope steepness has been reduced by about 10 percent, the study said.

"Topographic changes and land-cover changes associated with mountaintop mining have the potential to produce changes in climate at local to regional scales," the study states. "Modeling is needed to determine if the now extensive development of mountaintop mining is leading to such changes."

The study also notes that mountaintop removal often converts mature forests, which store carbon dioxide, to reclaimed sites that do not sequester as much of the climate-warming gas. In addition, the mining process itself and the burning of coal are sources of global warming pollution, the study says. It recommends studying these changes through a carbon-accounting process from pre-mining to between 50 and 75 years after mining is complete.

Also, the study says that mountaintop removal is causing damaging fragmentation of forests, changing the region's distribution of forest communities, raptors and songbirds, and "appears to have a negative impact on human health."

The study says a new Environmental Impact Statement -- meant to update one finalized in 2005 -- would help scientists and government agencies more fully understand all of these issues. The EPA has not announced plans for any such project.
[...]
The negative impacts of mountaintop removal are already so well known in general that it's reasonable to ask why this kind of strip mining continues.  Firstly, it's just amazing what can be done with something called "regulatory capture" and phalanxes of attorneys, especially when the target population is poor and unable to take on the combination of big government, big coal companies, and high-priced legal teams.
 
But there are additional factors in play; one is tragically ironic: The Sierra Club in particular along with other big political actors on environmental issues had long ago taken up the cause against mountaintop removal. But they'd focused on one issue, which is the toxic effect on water sources from mountaintop removal.  This allowed opponents in the coal industry to round up their own scientific experts to contest the environmentalist-funded studies on the water contamination issue.

And so the two sides have gone round and round for decades, as the humanitarian crisis in Appalachia has gotten worse and worse, and the many other negative impacts of mountaintop removal have received little scientific study.

Another factor is that mountaintop removal is just one part of the very complicated story of coal mining in the USA. The larger story includes the employment that coal mining has traditionally provided for residents of Appalachia, and the struggles of coal companies to profit in the face of always escalating labor union demands and environmental regulations connected with coal mining and coal burning.
 
The bottom line for mountaintop removal: Despite the fact that this kind of strip mining makes up only a small fraction of American coal mining, it is a cost-effective way to mine because it's not labor intensive. And, another irony: the strip mining is nowhere near as dangerous for miners as deep earth mining -- at least, not in the short run.

But now that global warming scientists are recalculating their math based on the latest satellite data, maybe Appalachia's environmental problems, at least, will finally garner more attention.  That would be cold comfort for the victims of mountaintop removal, but it's better than nothing.  Yet their plight, and the entire mountaintop removal issue, risks being overrun by the Environmental Protection Agency's scorched earth approach, if you'll pardon the expression, to limiting CO2 emissions in the USA. From a USA TODAY report datelined June 2:
Taking a historic step to fight climate change, the Obama administration proposed a plan Monday that aims to slash carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants 30% by 2030 and could accelerate the nation's shift away from coal.

The Environmental Protection Agency plan, which is President Obama's largest climate effort so far, could help the United States prod other countries like China to pledge similar emissions cuts as part of a new international treaty that's slate for negotiation next year in Paris.

The controversial 645-page plan, expected to trigger legal challenges, sets different reduction targets for each state and gives them flexibility in how to achieve them. Yet it aims for a 30% national reduction of heat-trapping CO¬≤ emissions, from 2005 levels, by 2030 -- an amount that the EPA says is equal to annual emissions from powering more than half of U.S. homes. 
[...]
Just on the rumor of the plan, tremendous resistance to it was mustered by the coal industry, and now that the plan has been published a new phase of the Coal War is underway; this, despite the fact that Obama has said he'll veto any legislative effort to block or water down the EPA plan.
  
Irony piled on irony: West Virginia legislators have leaped to defend the coal industry against the EPA plan because of the large number of jobs that coal mining sustains in the state.  See this report from a lobbying organization for details.

So while the CO2 emissions issue does have some connection to the mountaintop removal one, controversy about the EPA's plan threatens to obscure it. 

Meanwhile, over in Central America: from Matt McGrath's January 30, 2014 report for BBC about the Science journal study:
[...]Drugs have been smuggled through Central America for decades, with marijuana and cocaine from countries like Colombia heading for lucrative markets in major US cities. But according to the researchers [who contributed to the Science study], the importance of the area as a route for trafficking has increased significantly over the past seven years after a crackdown on the narcotics trade in Mexico. This prompted drug traders to move their operations into more remote areas in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

The move has seen a rapid increase in the amount of land cleared from forest. In Honduras, the level of large-scale deforestation per year more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, at the same time as cocaine movements in the country also showed a significant rise.

"A baseline deforestation rate in this region was 20 sq km per year," said lead author Dr Kendra McSweeney from Ohio State University. "Under the narco effect, we see over 60 sq km per year. In some parts of Guatemala, the rates are even higher. We're talking up to 10% deforestation rates, which is just staggering."
[...]
And there's a snowballing aspect to narco deforestation, as you'll see if you read the entire report. Others -- ranchers, farmers -- who'd wanted to cut down vast swaths of forest but were prevented from doing so by laws have encouraged the Mexican drug cartels to do their work for them.  The result, as Kendra McSweeney notes, is staggering.

But it's the old story of dealing with your own neck of the woods. There is next to nothing that citizens of the USA can do to halt narco deforestation in Central America. There is plenty they can do to stop mining deforestation in Appalachia.

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