OK, I admit it! I was wrong. Long before Heath Shuler challenged former Rep. Charles Taylor, I had no confidence that an unnamed Democrat could defeat the eight-term incumbent. No way! I told my wife “Taylor’s too strong to lose to a generic Democrat.” Then, after Shuler declared his candidacy and unveiled his “mountain values” platform, my pessimism shifted to hopefulness, not optimism. On Nov. 3, 2006, my waning hope for the future quickly turned to optimism as I learned that now-Congressman Shuler had ousted Taylor.
After five months, Shuler’s actions have transformed me into that optimistic environmentalist I was 20 years ago. How? A short list of his accomplishments speaks for itself.
What he has done
Congressman Shuler has:
(1) Voted to divert subsidies from Big Oil to accelerate the use of domestic renewable energy and to promote energy conservation and efficiency;
(2) Co-sponsored two bills that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions 7080 percent by 2050; and
(3) Voted against a motion that provides special consideration for funding coal-to-liquid development, a process that converts coal into a transportation fuel but creates so much global warming pollution that a hybrid car run on liquid coal would pollute as much as a Hummer.
Recently, Shuler demonstrated his deep commitment to protecting the Appalachian Mountains by co-sponsoring the Clean Water Protection Act (CWPA). Introduced on May 3, the CWPA protects the headwaters of streams that supply millions of Americans with clean drinking water by significantly curtailing the ravages of a cataclysmic form of strip mining called mountaintop removal (MTR).
MTR begins by stripping the forested Appalachian Mountains down to bedrock. Next, high explosives obliterate the bedrock to expose the coal. According to the EPA, mountaintop removal can involve “removing 500 feet or more of the summit.” The remaining rubble — millions of tons — is dumped into neighboring valleys and streams. The EPA estimates that more than 7 percent of Appalachian forests have been removed and more than 1,200 miles of streams have been buried or polluted. More than 470 mountains have been destroyed.
You can see this for yourself, in Google Earth, at www.iLoveMountains.org. At current rates, an area the size of Delaware will be destroyed by 2010.
Additionally, MTR requires giant dams to store billions of gallons of toxic coal sludge. Currently, 600 dams blight the Appalachian coalfields, and each will eventually poison the water supply. More immediately frightening is the threat of dam breaches. Several breaches have occurred, and one at Buffalo Creek, W.Va., killed 125 people. Many were children. There are 77 sludge dams in West Virginia alone that are at risk of failing. The most alarming is a leaking 385-foot-tall dam with a capacity of nearly 3 billion gallons sitting just 400 yards from, and above, the Marsh Fork Elementary School.
So, why should North Carolinians care about the devastating impacts of MTR? Well, because we burn 12 percent of the coal produced in that region.
Thanks to Shuler’s leadership, the CWPA will protect the Appalachian coalfields from MTR by repealing a Bush administration rule change that permits mining companies to dump mining waste into valleys and streams.
Walking the walk
Recently, I met with Shuler. After mentioning that I was putting solar panels on my home, he told me that he was preparing to have a wind turbine installed at his home and that he’d like the name of my solar installer.
During that brief conversation my optimism, like the Grinch’s heart, grew exponentially as I began to realize that Shuler’s steadfast personal and public leadership on environmental issues demonstrates that he not only has “mountain values,” he values our mountains.
Scott Gollwitzer lives in Asheville and is in-house counsel at Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit organization that brings people together to solve the environmental problems having the greatest impact on the central and southern Appalachians.