For the Conservation Curious

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Job Loss vs. Health – Cigarettes and Coal April 3, 2017

The current president, Republican congressmen, and others bemoan the “death of coal” and the “war on coal”. They talk about how coal’s demise has resulted in job losses for many across Appalachia and beyond. No one can deny that when a coal mine closes, miners and others lose their jobs, and the surrounding communities’ economies suffer. Yet there is a link that I have not seen anyone discuss or write about, and I think it’s high time someone does… the similarities between health impacts from coal and cigarettes and how no one seemed to say the death of “Big Tobacco” was a job killer that should be re-thought.

The Tobacco Industry

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that smoking kills 480,000 people in the United States each year. That is one in every five deaths per day. As mounting evidence of this, as well as the addictive nature of nicotine and the tobacco industry’s cover-up came to light, there was strong pressure to stop the marketing of cigarettes and educate people on the benefits of quitting. More and more people began to quit smoking, which had a major impact on the tobacco industry’s profits.

The CDC says that the number of tobacco farms in the United States is down from a high of nearly 180,000 in the 1980s to less than 10,000 in 2012, although our country is still a leading producer (4th in the world). Think of how many tobacco farmers, cigarette manufacturing employers, distributers, and others who lost their jobs due to the acknowledgement of the health impacts of tobacco. Where was the outcry about those job losses? Perhaps at a southeastern U.S. scale, where most of it is grown, there was more discussion, but at a national level I don’t recall seeing anything of the magnitude we get about coal.

The Coal Industry

Physicians for Social Responsibility says that the burning of coal can cause asthma, lung disease, and lung cancer, and negatively impact lung development in children. For coal miners, black lung disease is a real and under-reported illness, according to an investigative report from NPR this past December. Hundreds of miners and former miners are dying each year in West Virginia alone, according to the report. Hundreds more in other coal mining states are dying as well.

Why the Silence?

Why is no one making a connection between coal mining and its negative impacts to people’s health with the impacts smoking has on health when trying to counter the “job killing” rhetoric of the current administration? Yes, when a coal mine is shut down people lose their jobs. But the same thing happened when cigarette plants and tobacco farms were shut down as people wised-up about smoking’s negative impacts. The people that worked in the tobacco industry had to adapt and find a new job. Those in the coal industry must do the same. And we as a country must help them take this next chapter in their life.

What the Future Holds

I hope that this blog will inspire others with more far-reaching audiences and greater impact to spread the message that the negative health impacts of mining and burning coal far-outweigh any benefits of keeping that industry going, just as the closing of cigarette manufacturing plants and tobacco farms did in the 1990s and beyond. We need to help miners, coal-burning plant technicians, and others transition to safer jobs that will lead the United States back on a path to innovation and prosperity. Whether that’s through alternative energy sources such as solar and wind or some new, untapped technology, it is high-time for us to move forward together. Let’s let coal go the way of cigarettes and snub it out.


My Stance on Marcellus December 13, 2010

I am editor of a quarterly e-zine that deals with wildlife and conservation news and the fall issue’s theme is Energy.  The cover story was on Marcellus shale drilling and, as expected, it brought in many more letters to the editor than any previous article had.  So far most comments have been of the same sort – saying that the article is one-sided and pro-drilling.  We aimed to be as neutral as possible, mentioning some negative impacts to the environment while not directly calling drilling a bad industry.  I had to keep my personal feelings out of it; something that was VERY difficult for me to do.  That is the role of a good journalist, however: to remain impartial.  Yet I was so upset by some of the letters that I had to vent here and share some of my feelings about drilling in the Marcellus shale.  These thoughts in no way represent what my organization thinks; they are solely my own.

I did a lot of research for that article and even visited a few drill sites.  I will be honest, they were not as horrible as I imagined they would be, using my preconceived notions formed from watching “Gas Land” and reading various articles and non-profit organization websites.  But they still weren’t what I’d ideally like to see in a forest.  A lot of trees are cut down to build the pad site, the area is graded with heavy machinery, which will compact the soil (and once soil is compacted it is difficult to fix), and there were a lot of vehicles coming and going through the area.  It’s not a “natural” site, to be sure, and one that shouldn’t be built willy-nilly throughout the Commonwealth.

Friends ask me whether I am for or against drilling for natural gas.  That’s a tough question for me to answer.  The part of me that is a pure conservationist screams, “No! I am NOT for it!”, but the more practical side of me pauses and thinks, “Well, we need energy to power our daily lives. The natural gas question isn’t going away any time soon. Basically, it’s complicated!”  Do I wish we could put solar panels on every roof in the state and grow native grasses for biofuel? YES! In a perfect world we could make much of our energy using alternative sources.  If Germany and other European countries can do it, why not us?!  But in our current democrat fighting with republican world, that isn’t likely to happen, so what else can we do?  Does this mean we must drill for natural gas?  In the short-term, I think the answer is yes.  Is that the answer I like? No, not really, but unless we’re all willing to go back to lighting our homes with beeswax candles and taking a horse-drawn buggy to the general store (ask your kids if they’d be willing to give up their video game systems and tell me how that works!), we have to find some sort of energy source in the U.S. and in the short-term that probably means natural gas.

Am I a bad environmentalist for saying that? Perhaps. I’ve participated in a protest or two in my life but generally I’m not that hard-core and prefer to make change in a more constructive manner.  The Greenpeace-types of the world deserve big kudos for the difficult and sometimes dangerous work they do, but that’s definitely not my style.  I’m the kind of person that watches “Whale Wars” and thinks that sometimes the people are doing more harm than good when they sabotage the Japanese whaling ships, but I digress…

Back to Marcellus. Conservation of our natural resources is, in my opinion, the most important thing we as conscientious human beings can do.  Yes, we have to make money so we don’t starve, but once our basic needs are taken care of I think we have a responsibility to protect our natural world because it’s the only planet we have, our very health depends on it, and once something is destroyed or exterminated we can’t bring it back.  If companies are going to continue to drill for natural gas in Pennsylvania and elsewhere it needs to be done in a very cautious, science-based, enlightened way that takes into consideration the health of our forests, waters, wildlife, plants and people.  This is happening now, but in a piecemeal fashion.  We need more people, not fewer, out there inspecting sites, making sure companies are doing what they’re supposed to. 

So those people who wrote angry or concerned letters about the article, I hear you. I understand where you’re coming from in terms of your fears and worries. Pennsylvania was manipulated and trashed by industries in the past – think turn of the century loggers and coal mining, just to name a couple – and you can’t blame people for expecting the worst.  We need to have those people out there with very strong opinions and keen eyes to keep everyone in line, doing the right things.  I may not be allowed to picket a drill site (unless I want to lose my job), nor would I necessarily want to, but it comforts me to know that there are folks out there who are making sure our resource extraction – not just of natural gas, but of other energy sources and minerals – does as little damage to the environment as possible, until we reach the day when we can power our homes, vehicles and lives with something that does little to impact the Earth.  Keep up the good fight!


Mountaintop Mining Redux August 6, 2010

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 3:58 PM
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Normally I try to stay away from being political, but after seeing the following quote, I felt I had to comment. 

“I think they should name it [mountain top mining] something better,” he says. “The top ends up flatter, but we’re not talking about Mount Everest. We’re talking about these little knobby hills that are everywhere out here. And I’ve seen the reclaimed lands. One of them is 800 acres, with a sports complex on it, elk roaming, covered in grass.” Most people, he continues, “would say the land is of enhanced value, because now you can build on it.”

That came from Rand Paul, a Republican candidate (and tea party favorite) running for a U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky, when asked about mountaintop mining – ie. the process of removing tops of mountains to get at the coal buried beneath.  I have blogged about this horrendous practice before, but a summary of its impacts to the planet include polluted and erosion-choked streams, valleys filled in with rock and sediment and flat grassy plateaus where forested mountains once stood.  Kentucky and West Virginia are hotbeds of this practice, so it’s not all that surprising to hear a Republican from one of said states supporting it.  I will give it that it creates jobs.  No one can deny that (in fact, nearly 18,000 miners work in Kentucky).  But does the short-term benefit of new jobs justify the long-term impacts of the practice? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

Mr. Paul says that these “reclaimed” mountaintops are of “enhanced value because now you can build on it.”  As if the earth’s sole purpose is to hold our parking lots, Sprawl Marts and mega malls?!  Mt. McKinley? It would look a lot nicer with some coffee shops on it.  Mt. Zion National Park? We’d make more money if we converted it to the world’s largest ATV park.  The Everglades? Let’s drain it and build some condos (oh wait, that already happened!).  Do any of those sound ridiculous to you? If so, then you probably don’t want Rand Paul holding any major political position.

To add insult to injury, the miner’s union is actually supporting Paul’s opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, in part because of Paul’s lax stance of mine regulations – regulations that help save miners’ lives.  Rand Paul thinks the federal government is stepping in too much, but as we’ve seen with the BP oil disaster in Gulf, perhaps it’s more government intervention we need, not less.  Leadership at these big corporations won’t necessarily be good to the earth if no one’s holding a big stick above their heads.


Soon to be “Everyday Energy” June 21, 2010

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 3:59 PM
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I understand why things like wind, solar and biofuels are deemed “alternative energies”; they are seen as alternatives to our traditional coal, oil and natural gas-generated energy sources.  However, I don’t like thinking about them as alternative energies because it makes them seem somewhat fringe, somewhat untested, somewhat different (aka. weird).  Opponents of these energy sources like to use that negative connotation to get more people on their side.  They say that only those really left-wing tree-hugging hippies support “alternative energy.”  Patriotic conservatives support all the jobs that are created through the old standbys of coal, oil and natural gas.  Just think about the use of “alternative” when it comes to a person’s lifestyle: goths, punks, homosexuals, transgender people, etc.  Any person that falls into the “alternative” category may be looked down upon by the more conservative folks out there.  Certainly that is not my idea of a good and just America.  I’d like to think we’re all equal in the grand scheme of things.

But all energy sources are not created equal.  The so-called “alternative energy” sources have their limitations, it’s true.  The sun is not out 24-7; wind is not constantly blowing at gale-force speeds; biofuels require large tracts of land to be grown.  But when taken as a whole, these sources of energy provide much more for us than they take away, as opposed to the old fashioned ways of getting energy.  Coal is dirty when burned, it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to extract (think of this year’s Massey coal mine disaster), and mining leaves the land and water scarred and polluted for generations.  Natural gas burns cleaner but is also potentially dangerous to extract (think of the gas rigs that recently blew out in WV and PA), the well pads fragment forest land, and leaking wells can contaminate groundwater.  Oil is also difficult and dangerous to extract (don’t think I have to remind you about what’s happening in the Gulf right now, thanks to B.P.), can pollute the environment when leaks occur, and in the case of tar sands in Canada (Google this… it really is a terrible form of resource extraction!) it can scar landscapes beyond recognition.  Our “business as usual” model for energy creation needs to change.

What I propose is that instead of calling solar, wind, biofuels and others “alternative energies,” why not refer to them as our future’s “everyday energy” or “advanced energies” or something more positive?  After all, one day they won’t be alternative any more. We will run out of coal, oil and gas at some point, and then what?  Solar, wind and other technologies we haven’t even thought of yet will become our everyday energy sources.  Why not start now? 

On a related note, I would like to bring up the Murkowski resolution that (thankfully) failed to pass in the House two weeks ago.  What Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) had hoped to do with her resolution was to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from being able to regulate carbon as a pollution.  Right now large factories, automobiles and power plants are putting out carbon dioxide, a known green house gas.  The Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine whether or not carbon dioxide is hazardous to human health and welfare, which they did, and now they are trying to take action.  The EPA is working with automobile manufacturers to raise the minimum fuel standard so that our cars and trucks run more fuel efficiently (ie. saving us money at the pump and keeping the air a bit cleaner for our health).  If the Murkowski resolution had passed, the EPA would not have been able to raise those fuel standards (which the auto industry was supporting). 

The supporters of the resolution claimed that the EPA would cripple the economy if they regulate carbon but where do they come up with that?  When the ozone hole was discovered, things like CFCs were banned and the refrigeration and AC industries are doing just fine.  When it was discovered that DDT was killing bald eagles and other animals and it was banned, the pesticide industry didn’t go belly-up.  When lead was removed from gasoline because its harmful to the health of children, the gasoline industry didn’t falter.  So why should regulating carbon be any different?  If people can show me solid science-based data to prove me wrong, I welcome it.  But those opposed to carbon regulation aren’t known to use and support a lot of science, so I doubt anything will come my way in support of their stance.  Again, I’d be happy to be proved wrong.


Energy Emergency April 6, 2010

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 3:03 PM
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The mine disaster that took place in West Virginia this week is a reminder that our need for energy carries with it a large and sometimes grave burden. My heart goes out to those affected by this tragedy. I cannot imagine risking my life as a coal miner, but for some it is their calling. They see coal as the bringer of a paycheck that will put food on their family’s table, while I (and the many other environmentalists out there) see coal mining as a dirty “necessity” of our current lifestyles. Both sides of the issue are right in their beliefs; you can’t blame anyone for wanting to provide for their family.

And coal is not the only energy industry that carries with it this duality. Here in Pennsylvania we are hearing a lot about Marcellus shale natural gas drilling – that it will bring new jobs to an economically depressed part of the state, and that it will pollute our drinking water and fragment the beautiful natural landscapes that abound in north-central Pa. Which is the truth? Most likely, they both are. Even wind energy, which so many conservation organizations tout as one of our best bets to an energy independent future, has its drawbacks – if turbines are improperly sited they can kill bats and birds, as well as fragment forested habitat. Hydroelectric dams can prevent fish from moving upstream; fields of solar mirrors can look like a lake to migrating birds, drawing them to their death; and offshore oil rigs are a scenic eyesore.

So what are we to do? How can we continue our way of life when posed with all these negatives – people dying, vistas permanently marred, habitats polluted beyond redemption? We are in the middle of an energy emergency, one that has been with us since the dawn of electricity and the age of the automobile (or theoretically even further back than that… think whale oil lamps!). I am not an alternative energy expert, nor an economist, nor a subsurface geologist, so I won’t hazard a guess at our best bet for one or more energy sources that have the smallest impact on our health and the survival of the natural world. What I do want to say, however, is that unless the majority of people in the world start to rethink how much energy they use and what they use it for, all the alternative energy sources in the world still won’t be good enough. Even small changes in our energy use patterns will go a long way toward improving the quality of our planet. If that means getting outdoor more, rather than watching so much television, washing clothes with cold water rather than hot, ditching the bottled water and walking once or twice a week rather than driving, is that too much to ask? While we have the option of making those choices we should take them. If we put it off too long someone will make the choice for us and we might not like the decision.