The recent protest of Charlotte-based Bank of America’s practice of financing companies who strip mine coal in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia raised concerns that should be of interest to all North Carolinians. The Rainforest Action Network hung a huge banner off a crane in front of the Bank of America building that dominates the skyline of downtown Charlotte. The sign read, “Financing Coal, Killing Communities.”
Many of us are not aware of all the mining practices of coal giants such as Arch Coal and Massey Energy. Besides the familiar underground mining, they blow up mountains in Appalachia to get down to the coal, and push the waste and debris into surrounding valleys.
Known appropriately as mountaintop removal, this practice has leveled more than 470 Appalachian mountains and buried or polluted thousands of miles of mountain streams -- streams at the headwaters of the drinking water supply of millions of Americans. Blasting and flooding from mountaintop removal are also devastating families and communities in the mountains and leaving the economy of central Appalachia in shambles.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., perhaps the most prominent environmentalist of our time, recently stated in a speech in Blowing Rock, “Mountaintop removal is the biggest environmental battle of our hemisphere. You know, you can restore the Hudson River in perhaps a hundred years. But you will never, never, get these mountains back. This is truly a crime against every human being in the world.”
Duke wants huge new plant
Another prominent corporation in Charlotte, Duke Energy, is closely connected to Kennedy’s concerns. Duke is trying to gain state approval for a huge coal-fired power plant just upwind from Charlotte. The smaller, existing plants at this Cliffside site use mostly mountaintop removal coal from West Virginia and surrounding states, and the much larger unit, if approved, is expected to burn coal from the same region. In fact, according to the Boone-based environmental organization Appalachian Voices, Duke Energy is one of our nation’s three biggest users of mountaintop removal coal. Not only would increased demand for coal from the expanded Cliffside plant lead directly to the destruction of more beautiful and irreplaceable Appalachian mountains and communities, it would add millions of tons of global warming gases and other pollutants to our atmosphere. Congressional efforts to curb global warming are very likely to succeed in what promises to be a much more environmentally concerned Congress. So the Duke Energy effort to gain approval for the Cliffside coal plant may be seen as a race against time to get what may well be one of the last of the dirty coal plants in under the wire.
When Congress does finally act to regulate global warming gases, those regulations will be costly for states like North Carolina that get most of their electricity from dirty coal plants. With an astronomical 61 percent of our electricity already generated by burning coal, North Carolinians have a lot to lose by putting even more of our energy “eggs” in the coal “basket.”
Another connection exists between Bank of America and Duke Energy: both claim to be responsible corporate citizens who are concerned about their environmental footprint. Bank of America claims to be investing heavily in technologies that will reduce global warming. However, in 2006 the company spent $100 on dirty energy projects for every dollar it spent on clean energy, according to a white paper by the Rainforest Action Network.
The environmental rhetoric of Duke CEO Jim Rogers is just as misleading: Rogers asserted in a recent editorial in The New York Times that the best power plant is the one you don’t have to build. But a recent study by the N.C. Utilities Commission demonstrated unequivocally that conservation, efficiency and renewables could meet North Carolina’s projected energy demand at a comparable cost to what Duke plans to spend building the Cliffside coal plant.
The motto of North Carolina is Esse Quam Videri -- “To be, rather than to seem.” But what North Carolina-based companies Duke Energy and Bank of America may have most in common is how far they are from living up to this standard.
Harvard Ayers is professor emeritus of anthropology at Appalachian State University and a board member of Appalachian Voices, www.AppalachianVoices.org. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.