Surface mining on beautiful Alabama streams.

Karen’s parents weren’t planning on spending their retirement days
trying to protect the value of their property and its natural resources.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to weight the costs and benefits of destroying natural beauty for economic quickies. The longterm economic value of green spaces and trees and free-flowing clean streams would be assumed. But we live in the age of the quickie, and our values tend to be arranged in a scheme which places immediate gratification at the top.
On that note, surface mines are the equivalent of an economic quickie- fast, destructive, and ultimately unsatisfying. Learning that our state is so quick to permit, enable, and solicit the destruction of private and public property in the name of a few bucks makes teaching kids about delayed gratification feel rather tawdry.

Our neighbors, the Palmers, are facing a surface mine in their parents’ backyard in Cordova, Alabama. Don’t get me wrong- I understand that coal mines provide jobs and help sustain the fast and cheap American lifestyle to which we are accustomed. And I understand that people need jobs. But I also understand that we spend millions of public taxpayer dollars teaching people not to smoke because it kills them and our government doesn’t have the money to pay for all the health costs of smoking.
Coal mining should be considered in a similar manner. Until our government is willing to pick up the costs to our communities for strip mining (or, better yet, ensure that the coal companies pick up the cost of their profit-maximizing activities), we’d better hold off on inviting more strip mines and do a better job of incentivizing those that currently exist.

Meanwhile, in the land of newspaper publications and unicorns, publisher Jack McNeely thinks a windfall tax and few jobs will make up for the costs of cleaning up after the strip mine mess. Jack is reassured by the comment that the EPA has approved the way in which the waste will be handled. But Jack hasn’t done his economic homework. If he had, he would know that an 8% windfall tax isn’t going to cover the costs of clean-up- not now, not anytime in the near future. Looking at the 8,000 foot deep dispersal wells at the former site of Reichhold Industries in Tuscaloosa provides another picture of what EPA approval means.
Back in the 1970’s, the EPA partnered with private industry to drill these wells and dispose of toxic wastes. Alas, no one will touch the wells or the property now. You know why? Because no one can afford to touch them. The cost of making this land- which borders on the Black Warrior River and Hurricane Creek- “usable” exists in no public or private coffers. It is a sunk cost that everyone refuses to pay. But it’s not going away.
If anyone cares to invite Jack to savor the untouchable mess left behind at the former Reichhold site in a joint project between the industry and the EPA, you can do so at jack.mcneely@mountaineagle.com. Perhaps he will understand why learning that “the EPA makes certain requirements” doesn’t comfort me at all. In fact, I’d love to invite Jack down for an up-close-and-personal visit- it might even affect the way he views the world as much as those dollar signs from advertisers.
In the meantime, I urge you to write a letter and be part of what Jack describes as an imaginary process of local citizen feedback that “doesn’t change” a thing. Despite Jack’s cynicism, I have hopes for American democracy.
Writing a letter to the address below before July 29, 2012 might actually have some impact on the way things unfurl. If it doesn’t, then Jack is right and American democracy is as real as the lip colors in a high-school beauty pageant. If it does, then Jack is wrong and July 4th is still worth celebrating. Either way, we can’t know unless you write. So take a minute, write a few lines, learn a little more, see a few example letters, and be part of that thing called “freedom”. Last time I checked, it was pretty popular in the polls.

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