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environment

The lingering heartbreak of a ruined watershed

Since 2012, we’ve lived in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia. It’s a beautiful area, full of steep mountainsides, deep canyons, and burbling waterfalls. The region has seen a revival of sorts in the past decade or so, attracting tourists, second home owners, and new residents alike. Many come to explore the area’s unique combination of outdoor recreation opportunities and beautiful natural landscapes.

Many visitors don’t realize that this natural beauty is hard-won. Countless individuals and organizations have fought (and continue to fight) to restore the local environment to good health.

Why is “restoration” necessary? A century ago, this region’s economy was driven by extractive industry—timber and coal. Felling the dense old-growth forest devastated the ecosystem, destroying native species’ habitats and literally washing away the topsoil. Fortunately, over the decades, the forests have regrown. The woods aren’t what they once were, but they are still beautiful.

Coal mining had a harsher, longer-lasting impact.

Acid mine drainage

When a coal company abandons a mine, it shuts down its pumps and allows the tunnels to flood. Water seeps in, bathes the exposed sulfur-bearing rock, and flows out again—only now, it’s highly acidic and infused with heavy metals. This toxic outflow flushes into the nearby watershed, coating everything in a tell-tale orange muck and acidifying the stream itself. Many types of aquatic wildlife struggle to survive in the lower pH; this results in decreased biodiversity and lower animal populations. For humans, the water is undrinkable and unsafe to touch.

Acid mine drainage can persist for centuries; in a very real sense, afflicted watersheds are permanently ruined. Yes, there are mitigation strategies to deal with acidic run-off. But even the most effective methods don’t actually prevent spoiled outflow from entering the watershed; they simply add something else to the water (e.g. lime) to neutralize the acidic pollutants. These approaches treat the symptom, rather than the underlying disease, which has no cure.

Mining’s true cost

When debating coal’s impact, we rarely factor in the cost of preventing permanent watershed degradation. Yes, it’s prohibitively expensive to coat miles of passageways with cement and seal those toxic metals underground. But that should be figured into the coal companies profita and loss calculation. If you can’t afford to fill the hole, don’t dig it in the first place. If you can’t restore the waterways to their pre-mining condition, then you can’t afford to mine. Communities dependent on the watershed shouldn’t be forced to pay for your shortsightedness with their health.

A dose of realism

Of course, given the current political climate, extractive firms won’t be held to this high standard anytime soon. And even if they were, that wouldn’t restore the degraded rivers of our adopted home, since the companies responsible have long since evaporated or been absorbed by other energy companies.

So, while I still love to visit the highlands’ waterfalls and wetlands, those trips are bittersweet, since I know that the beauty masks deadly problems bubbling up from underground. ■

Categories
environment

‘Where Electric Vehicles Actually Cause More Pollution Than Gas Cars’

Eric Jaffe, writing for CityLab:

A view from the tailpipe gives EVs [electric vehicles] a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe.

We live in the remote West Virginia mountains, an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital or Wal-Mart. It’s a beautiful locale, but you don’t have to search long to find the scars of coal. Our local river has run acidic for nearly a century, thanks to unsustainable mining practices. On clear afternoons, the nearby coal plant’s sulfurous smoke plumes loom on the horizon.

That power plant generates electricity for more densely-populated areas east of here. Virginia drivers who blithely buzz to work in their Nissan Leafs may assume that their plug-in cars protect the environment. In reality, electric vehicles effectively outsource urban pollution to rural areas. As EVs replace gas-guzzlers, suburban smog may dissipate, but—at least in the coal-dependent eastern U.S.—rural skies grow ashen and rural rivers turn poisonous.

But, hey, “Out of sight, out of mind,” right?

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internet Life technology Uncategorized

Mountains cure iPhoneitis.

This video made the rounds this past week. It depicts a twenty-something woman, moving through her day sans smartphone. All around her, tiny glowing screens transfix her friends and family, leaving her to experience real life all alone. It’s an effective commentary on how consumer technology isolates us, even as it connects us virtually.

When we moved to West Virginia last year, we brought our brand new smartphones with us. We soon discovered (with disappointment) just how useless those gadgets are without decent cell service. We couldn’t make a phone call inside any local building. Data coverage was nearly non-existent; Tucker County lagged three generations behind the industry standard, and what connection we had rarely worked. Downloading an email took full minutes; photos were downright impossible.

But, as with many rural “inconveniences”, handicapping our smartphones also had its blessings. When we went out to dinner, we weren’t tempted to steal a peek at Facebook. No unwelcome calls interrupted our pleasant hikes through the mountains. When taking photos, the phone slipped quickly in and out of its pocket—with no long pause to Instagram the moment.

And local culture, we noticed, adapted to fit this technological landscape. Scenes like those from the video above—so common in suburbia—were rare here. Neighbors, we realized, actually met your gaze as they passed on the sidewalk. Some (wonder of wonders!) even smiled and said “Hello.” After years in Boston and D.C., this friendliness felt both strange and welcome. The area’s lackluster cell coverage kept iPhoneitis at bay and preserved Tucker County as a small oasis—a bubble of hospitality and awareness.

That bubble just burst. In recent weeks, AT&T has upgraded its cell service in our little town. It’s not unusual to catch a whiff of 4G here and there. And that’s not all bad; improved wireless will link Tucker County to the wider world, help visitors find their way around, and encourage tech-minded professionals to move here. But even if we appreciate the advantages of ubiquitous connection, we’ve can also mourn what we’ve lost.

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Life technology Uncategorized

Amazon Prime: the rural escapee’s best friend

When we moved to rural West Virginia last year, we knew the remote location would pose some challenges. There aren’t many doctors nearby, for example. It takes an hour to reach the nearest hospital. We drive twenty-five miles just to get our oil changed.

But the biggest headache? Shopping. Like all good Americans, we had grown accustomed to certain “retail conveniences.” Groceries stores with decent produce. Outdoor stores catering to our taste for adventure. And, of course, Big Box Mart for everything else. But our little mountain town boasts none of these niceties. It takes forty minutes to reach the nearest shopping center.

Amazon Prime to the rescue. For $79 a year, we can have just about anything delivered—for free—to our doorstep. We’ve ordered household items (e.g. an adapter for our grill), food (especially dry goods, like cereal and dried cranberries), clothes, backpacking gear, car parts, vitamins… and all that in the last few months. Most of these items simply aren’t available anywhere near where we live.

We could make rural life work without Amazon, of course. Build up a shopping list, then buy our crap when we’re out of town. But with Prime, household life rolls on here, pretty much like it would anywhere else.