The Coal Mine Behind My Parents’ House

Living in Kentucky when new EPA standards come out is like living in Kentucky when the Wildcats get knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the early rounds. There’s a lot of anger, frustration, and wondering how life as we knew it can continue. I recently heard a quote from the most prominent state law makers that the new EPA standards are “a dumbass idea and makes no sense.” This idea doesn’t make sense to them, because coal is the cheapest and most heavily used major energy source, and Kentucky exports and uses a bunch of it, so it will definitely handcuff a way of life that Kentucky is, right now, firmly tied to. I cringe, though, just about any time a politician talks about anything being a “no-brainer,” or “plainly obvious,” or a “dumbass idea,” because these things are almost always more complicated than that.

Full disclosure, I’m an environmentalist and I think that some pretty serious conservation is crucial to this world staying like it is, but that cutting back is also good for the soul. I’m laying out that I’m coming at it from that angle, but I’m not trying to say get rid of all coal and sign up for the EPA fanclub. I just want to give an illustration that shows the hard decisions we or our grandchildren or someone down the line will have to eventually face one way or another.

Lake Behind Mom and Dad's HouseAn analogy popped into my head this morning that really created a clear picture for me what I’m trying to get at to say energy is a tough issue. It involves my parents’ house. There are a lot of aspects of my parents’ home that could be a sort of microcosm of an area dealing with these issues. First, I’ll describe where my parents’ live: It’s my mom and dad’s dream house sitting on 50 acres of land that my grandfather purchased almost 40 years ago. It’s in a very rural area of the large, sparsely populated, Hardeman County, tucked back in the woods and sits just above two ponds that are full of catfish, brim, and maybe even a few bass. The house is surrounded by small hills that border a bottom, just across their property line. The land is covered in trees that look to be about 50 or 60 years old. My parents have a well that gives them all their running water. It has been tested as cleaner than treated, city water. There is wildlife all around—deer, raccoons, possums, armadillos, owls, frogs, turtles, snakes, on and on.

Now, let’s say that coal is discovered under the hills near my parents’ house. They immediately have several decisions to make: Do we extract the coal? How do we extract the coal? My parents are, in reality, doing just fine and have no need to extract coal, but let’s say they hit hard times and can’t keep up with their bills. If they just allow someone to come in and extract the coal, they could stand to make enough money to pay their bills and more. Also, their power bills would be the cheapest in the state, because the coal is right there. Even if they weren’t in financial trouble, it would be hard to resist, knowing all they could stand to profit. They could send their kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, so on to college.

So let’s say they decide to extract the coal. Next they have to decide how to get it out. They could go the old school route of digging a mine and hiring workers to mine the coal. That would require a excavators, construction workers, and miners to work deep underground extracting the coal. They would only lose a few of the trees from the land, but this plan will certainly eat into the profits from the coal. They would have to pay everyone involved in the construction, maintenance, and working of the mine. This would give a boost to jobs in Hardeman County which are often hard to come by due to its lack of industry. It could even create a surplus of jobs where people actually begin moving to Hardeman County for opportunity. This will cost more money, though, because there will have to be safeguards to protect the miners. Miners will eventually ask for more benefits due to the danger of the job and the health side effects from spending so much time underground breathing fumes. At this point, a decision would have to be made whether to save money and risk a mine collapse that would be tragic and generate terrible publicity or have even lower profits by meeting their demands. This goes for benefits, retirement, and health care as well.

There’s another option though that would be cheaper on the front end, and would not require as many workers. They could simply log the hills, generating some more revenue, then blow up the hills until they get to the coal and can extract it. This is much cheaper because it requires fewer workers, and therefore less payroll and less worries about benefits. My parents would have to part with the land as they know it. They would log the tree where my mother’s father built a deer stand, and there is no way to know beforehand how the loss of those hills will affect the rest of the property. It could create huge erosion issues. It could also create foundational issues for the house and my mother’s mother’s house nearby. The wildlife there would be forced to move somewhere else, upon losing its habitat. Essentially all the mammals and birds would be gone for an amount of time until a forest is able to return. If there are some animals that are heavily adapted to that specific area, they may never come back once it’s gone, potentially changing the balance of the ecosystem there, which could cause certain animal populations (like mosquitos) to explode.

Next, there is the situation with disposal of wastes. There is no easy way to dispose of the coal waste that isn’t harmful to something. An offer is put forth to contain the coal in the ponds right next to the coal mine, below my parents’ house. There, they will sit for a long time in hopes the waste will biodegrade or just stay contained until technology improves. The ponds are close, so transportation will be cheap. The waste poured into the ponds kills all life beyond simple bacteria and microbes. All fish, turtles, and snakes that had any contact with the water die. Any other animal that uses the water dies. Wildlife around the ponds moves to other places or dies off. If the levee of the pond fails, a flood of wastewater will pour onto the property next door, affecting their land, and their drinking water. The flood eventually runs into a creek, creating similar damage all along the waterway with anything in contact. Even if the levee stays intact, some of the chemicals will seep through the ground into the water table, affecting the tap water in my parents’ house. There are dangerous levels of chemicals in the water, and it is no longer safe for human contact. To continue use of the water, a treatment plant is built to purify the water for human use.

The smoke produced by the burning of coal begins to draw complaints from people in the area. They are tired of the poor air, the soot that finds its way onto clothes and trees depending on the weather, and the rise in asthma in Hardeman County. Next, decisions must be made on whether to spend the money to produce less smoke (which would create more need to find areas that can store the waste)or spend money on costly legal proceedings regarding the coal plant’s ability to create cheap energy for the population.

Lake from hill next to leveeWith all these factors at play, my parents might get to a point where they think it isn’t worth it. They may look around and see the changes it has caused to the health of the land and people in the county and decide it isn’t worth it. But, at this point, they have already begun the process and people have staked their livelihood on this venture. If they stop now, many people in the county will be without work, and it is all they’ve known their whole life. The county will not only lose the jobs directly related to the mine, but also the jobs that were there just because there were enough workers to bring in new businesses, restaurants, custom stores, etc.. My parents could stay in the energy business and try moving to wind, solar, or even nuclear, but it would be at a great cost, and they would lose a lot of money in the beginning on industries that are either unproven or equally costly to the environment. Plus, coal worker skills don’t translate directly over to wind, solar, or nuclear skills, so there would be a period of hard times for many people in Hardeman County and likely a lot of unrest for the local government.

On top of that, there are people who are making a lot of money on coal extraction, who do not want to see anything to slow down its production, because the directly slows down the money that is coming to them. They hire lobbyists to persuade lawmakers to push for legislation that will relax standards and launch an advertising campaign in Hardeman County entitled, “Coal keeps the lights on.” The money poured into these efforts, if effective, will easily make them back much more money if they are relieved of taxes and regulations that would cost much more than the lobbyists and advertisers.

So, what do my parents do? Something has to give eventually. Is there a point where all it takes to get coal and have cheap energy is not worth the cost to what it does to the land that belonged to their father? There will surely be a point where all it will cost to set the balance back to normal and take care of all the health costs is not worth the money for the coal, even if its generations down the road. But, how can you decide to cut someone’s livelihood out from under them, when they already do a thankless job for just enough pay to get by, while causing great physical damage to their bodies? There is no way to get out of this without taking a serious hit. But the more it stays the same, the greater the consequences get and the more dependent we feel on this thing that will eventually run out somewhere down the road.

As I thought more and more about Kentucky and other states who’s destiny seems so tied up with coal, or for that matter any state that depends heavily on just one resource, I tried hard to think about how I could make it seem more real to me and people I know and love, and thinking about it this way made me think a lot more about both sides and the hard decisions that lawmakers, local residents, and even people like me who don’t seem to have much at stake will have to come together at some point to figure out.

I don’t know exactly what the answer is for Kentucky, but I know it’s not simple or common sense. We are guaranteed to make some unpopular decisions in the future to someone, but I hope that hundreds of years from now, whatever we do, our great great great great grandchildren don’t consider the decision a “dumbass idea.” Regardless of what you think we should do about it, I hope knowing this motivates you to at least remember what all is at play when you decide to flip on that light switch or keep it off.

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