Thursday, July 10, 2008

Coal vs. Wind in Appalachia

Via Alternet, I learned about a grassroots movement fighting proposed coal mining permits in the area of Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. The proposed permits are for surface mining (a.k.a. mountaintop removal mining) that would destroy 6,600 acres of mountain forest and replace it with a barren, rocky valley. Headwaters of several local streams would be filled with rubble from the mountain, some of which contains toxic substances that would pollute the mountain streams and any water downstream. This form of mining contributes to the declines of mountain-nesting bird species such as cerulean warblers, in addition to the more obvious damage.

Some residents have proposed building wind energy projects along Coal River Mountain's ridges instead. The website does not make clear how many turbines would be involved, or how many acres it would cover. However, it claims that their proposal would generate about 400MW per year indefinitely, as opposed to the 15 years of energy produced by a coal mine. ILoveMountains contrasts the opposing visions for the region (and Coal River Mountain Watch gives striking visual examples of just how destructive surface mining is).

One thing not discussed on either website is how a ridge-top wind farm would impact wildlife in the region. There tends to be an assumption that wildlife will benefit from wind energy, but that is not necessarily the case. A lot depends on siting, construction, and local migration patterns. How those factors interact would all need to be accounted as part of an environmental assessment and mitigation process. (Of course, I am left wondering why they do not seem to be a element of the coal mine permitting process; if coal were held to the same standards as wind, very few mines would be dug, if any.)

Despite wind energy's potential problems, it seems like it would cause less long-term environmental damage than demolishing the mountain. In this particular case I think it offers advantages. What do you think?