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Mountaintop removal provides Appalachian coal to Europe

coal train in the snow

Photo: wsilver/Flickr.

Mika Minio-Paluello, Anna Galkina and James Marriott are travelling in North America as part of a tour over September and October to promote The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian to the City of London. You can find more info about their confirmed speaking dates in Virginia, the Bay Area, Toronto, Baltimore and Washington DC, New Orleans and New York here. James Marriott writes the article below, the second in a three-part series, this one from coal country in Virginia.

Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia

Just beyond Merrimac, on the eastern bank of Wilson Creek – less than five miles south of here – runs the Norfolk & Southern railroad line. Along the steel rails passes the deep belly rumble of the coal trains. Their horns honk in the night. When the wind is from the east, blowing down the North Fork valley, a cloud of black dust rises from the wagons and settles on the leaves of the Hickory, Hemlock and Maple trees. The trains, perhaps 600 yards long, bring coal from the open cast and mountain top mines of West Virginia and east Kentucky. The trains are invariably the same. Two strings of coal hoppers 50 cars long. Two diesel engines at the front, two diesel engines in the middle, two diesel engines pushing from the rear. Each of the hundred hoppers is piled high with black rock, each carries 143 tons. Each train is laden with 143,000 tons of coal. The heart of a mountain lain on its side, grinding slowly east.

The road between Merrimac and Christiansburg crosses a ridge through which the railroad passes in a tunnel. This construction, built in the 1880’s, takes the line across the watershed from the valley of New River to the valley of Roanoke River – from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic. Blacksburg is built on the very crux between these two bodies of water – between the rivers of the Eastern Seaboard and the North Atlantic, and the rivers of the mighty Mississippi flowing to the Gulf Coast. The extraction of coal in West Virginia, on the banks of the tributaries that feed the River Ohio, pollutes what Lincoln called “The Father of Waters.”

Over the years, through visiting my friend in Virginia, and with echoes of Platform’s Homeland project in my mind, I have tried to track the journey of this black rock. In a pick-up truck, I’ve followed rail lines winding into the Appalachians, the land of the Shawnee, Cherokee, and Mingo First Nations. Through the steep-sided valleys, sometimes barely wide enough for the parallel paths of railroad, river and road, to the likes of Blackfoot Mining Inc. near Laeger in McDowell County, West Virginia. There are long running campaigns in this area, protesting against the ecological brutality of mountain tops entirely removed in the search for coal, by diggers whose buckets would carry three Greyhound buses, dragline cranes that are twenty-storeys high.

The endless coal trains rattling across Virginia, through Roanoke, Lynchburg and Petersburg, carry the rock to the east coast at Newport News. At Lambert’s Point Terminal I’ve seen the coal wagons covered in snow, inching toward the piers where colliers, like the MN Istanbul and the MN Hunan Capetown, were waiting, bound for Shanghai, Bilbao, or Rotterdam. Beyond the oceans their holds disgorge great hills of carbon onto the quaysides of docks such as the Europoort in the Netherlands. I’ve gazed at the coal coasters lumbering up the wide Thames estuary, between Foulness and Sheppey, to be unloaded by cranes on the jetties at Tilbury Power Station on the Thames and Kingsnorth Power Station on the Medway. And from the house where my partner and I live, we have watched the smoke rise from the power station chimneys, the rocks of Appalachia in the Kent and Essex air, and seen the pylons stretching to the horizon bearing electricity to London and beyond.

Ever since Europeans arrived on this continent they have been digging and mining, shipping the fruits of these soils back across the Atlantic. Bartolome de Las Casas, writing in his History of the Indies described the scene in 1490’s on the island of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic:

Mountains are stripped from top to bottom and from bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash for gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them…

When 104 indentured men and boys from London, Essex and Suffolk landed in Tsenacommacah, the country of the Powhattan nation, and established the colony of Jamestown, they were under strict instructions from the London merchants who had financed the expedition, that they should dig, searching for “Mines and Minerals of Gold, Silver and other Metals or Treasure.” Only after five years of failure did they start to grow tobacco, and later purchased enslaved men and women trafficked from West Africa.

Valero refinery protest

HOUSTON, TX – THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2012 8:00AM –-Longtime Gulf Coast activists Diane Wilson and Bob Lindsey Jr. have locked their necks to oil tanker trucks destined for Valero’s Houston Refinery in solidarity with Tar Sands Blockade’s protests of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.

From the ships of the Conquistadors carrying gold, to the colliers crammed with the tops of Appalachian mountains, the minerals of the New World, the very foundations of the Americas, have been dragged across the Atlantic. The Valero petroleum tankers that are loaded with tonnes of diesel at refineries on the Gulf Coast carry the lands of the Athabascan Cree First Nation, in the form of fuel from tar sands extracted at Shell’s Jackpine Mine in Alberta, Canada. This process has a 500-year-old history and not only has it destroyed swathes of the land and peoples of this continent, but it has also helped create in Europe, and the rest of the world, cultures of subterranean dependency. So intense is this dependency in the place where Platform is based – the metropolis of London and the Thames valley – that this pattern seems like a given, like common sense. Trying to imagine life without mining, especially for coal, oil and gas, sounds like fantasy or heresy for many people.

Despite its scale and its hundred and thirty year history, the economy of industrial coal mining in Appalachia is today well known to be frail. For the consumption of coal in the USA is threatened by the “Shale gas revolution” – the rapid growth in the extraction of natural gas through processes such as fracking. The expansion of these processes, though widely resisted in many States, is impacting on the price of gas in the US. The pylons that carry electricity across the mountains to towns like Blacksburg come from plants such as the Appalachian Power station at Glen Lyn, in nearby Giles County. Now power stations such are these are shifting from coal-fired generation to gas-fired generation – right next door to coal country. There has, however, been no corresponding fall in the price of gas in Western Europe and the past year has seen a sudden, and surprising, rise in exports of US coal across the Atlantic – those colliers from Newport News.

But this is surely only a temporary increase. In the UK, for example, the past nine months has seen the closure of five coal-fired power plants as the EU legislation on emissions finally begins to bite. Kingsnorth power station was closed in December 2012. A wonderful victory. It had been made iconic, as the place of a sustained campaign by Climate Camp, Greenpeace, World Development Movement, Kingsnorth Climate Action Medway and others, who resisted the attempts by the German electricity corporation, E.ON, to build a new coal-fired plant.

However, in the shadow of the redundant Kingsnorth a new gas-fired plant has been built. Dam Head Creek power station draws its fuel from the national gas pipeline system, a part of which is fed from the Grain LNG terminal, two miles east. Here, ships carrying frozen liquid natural gas arrive from Algeria. The ships owned by, or contracted to, BP and the Algerian company Sonatrac are filled with gas extracted from beneath the searing heat of the Sahara. And so a new battle has begun – the battle against the UK government’s drive to build new gas-fired power stations, fueled by LNG imports, fracking in the UK, or the gas import pipelines. It’s a campaign being driven forward by local campaigners, Frack Off and No Dash for Gas. The most intense site of struggle in these weeks is at Balcombe in Sussex – forty miles south west of Kingsnorth – but there have been outcries and campaigns initiated across nearly all the fracking sites in the UK.

In The Oil Road we studied and portrayed the movement of oil & gas westwards into Europe. Here in Blacksburg I’m again in a place marked by the transport of hydrocarbons, this time moving east towards Europe. The trade in geology over land and sea, with its huge environmental, human rights, and health impacts, both at the places of extraction and consumption.

But trades come, and trades go. Tides of opinion change. Revolts, rebellions and revolutions in values overturn what was previously common sense. The trade in opium was once the foundation of Britain’s commercial empire in the Far East. We understand it as a commonplace today that trade in heroin is internationally outlawed and that this ban is enforced by the military, the police and secret services. Can we imagine that the trade in coal, oil and gas – liquified or otherwise – will soon become outlawed? That any attempt to ship it across the Atlantic, for example, would be prevented by international agreement? That the movement of coal through Giles Co. and Roanoke Co., through Newport News and Europoort could be banned? This cannot any longer be a fantasy. If we want the warming of the Earth’s climate to be kept within acceptable limits, such a ban has to become a commonplace by 2030.

With thanks to Suzi Gablik, Dr Betty Fine, Professor at the Department of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Joe Kelly, artist, Blacksburg, Lorne Stockman and Jane Trowell.

– James Marriott, reposted from Platform London

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