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From new jobs for coal country to the moose’s long decline, some great reads

photo of moose wading in water
Moose have been sucked to death by ticks, whose numbers and feeding success are surging as harsh winters decline.

A new industrial sector may be taking shape along the Ohio River as it snakes from the Pittsburgh area, where steel is in permanent contraction, and passes parts of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky where coal production is fading faster.

If this sounds to you like progress, even potential rescue, then James Bruggers at Inside Climate News would caution you. Jim is among the deans of America’s environmental journalists, with long service at The Courier-Journal in Louisville; his fascinating article “Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia,” leads today’s selection of great recent reads.

A thing I had not grasped about fracking is the value of liquid ethane that comes to the surface with natural gas. At so-called cracker plants, “wet gas” is stripped of hydrogen, which leaves ethane, which is made into ethylene, which is processed into solid pellets for storage and shipment, and eventually for melting and molding into “a myriad of products, from bottles to car parts.”

The region’s first ethane cracker plant is being built in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Bruggers writes, with two more being contemplated for sites in Wood County, West Virginia, and Belmont County, Ohio. It’s easy to see this trajectory accelerating into a boom, considering that “state and business leaders and the Trump administration are promoting plastics and petrochemical development as the next big thing” for employment and economic growth in a swath of America that is desperate for both.

But there’s a climate price to be paid. Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050. …

There’s a more localized, public health price as well:

The Shell plant will also emit as much smog-forming pollution as 36,000 cars driving 12,000 miles year; that would equate to about a 25 percent increase in the number of cars in Beaver County, said James Fabisiak, an associate professor and director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh.

These statistics do not appear to count for much with business boosters, nor do analyses suggesting that plastics production will go through the same boom-and-bust cycles as mining and other extractive industries,  despite a presumably unending global demand for more plastic.

There is a huge amount of international competition for plastic production, [energy analyst Cathy Kunkel] said. “All of the major oil exporting countries in the Middle East are talking about making massive investments in petrochemicals over the next five years or so,” she said. “That contains the risk that you will be exporting into a market that would be oversaturated with products.”

***

Nobody outside the coal industry would call it a model of environmental responsibility. Still, when a coal-mining operation comes to an end, so does most of its threat to public waters, public health and public budgets. Comparatively speaking, that is. Especially if the comparison is to hardrock mining for copper, nickel, gold and other precious metals.

This is a perspective that Mark Olalde raises in a piece co-published by Mother Jones and the Center for Public Integrity: “Companies polluted Western waters. Taxpayers are picking up the tab.”

His focus is not the unavoidable curse of acid mine drainage from hardrock operations, but the virtual inevitability that mining companies will escape responsibility for cleaning it up because of inadequate financial assurances, or bankruptcy, both.

As many as 500,000 abandoned hardrock and coal mines are scattered across the country, according to a Bureau of Land Management estimate. Many are small, and the exact number is unknown. While fees from operational coal mines help pay for cleanup of legacy coal sites, no such system exists in the hardrock industry, and federal agencies estimate they spend more than $80 million on abandoned hardrock cleanup annually.

Unlike with coal mining, which is also underfunded for proper cleanup, no central law or single federal agency oversees hardrock reclamation. A patchwork of state and federal legislation, beginning with a law barely updated since its passage in 1872, regulates hardrock mine closure. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and state regulators oversee a system of governance unique to each state, managed by often-outdated memorandums of understanding.

States have fine-tuned their mining laws since they were stuck with cleanup costs after a rash of bankruptcies wiped out mining companies in the 1990s. But predicting future costs isn’t an exact science.

An awesome if highly inexact estimate is offered from the work of Jim Kuipers, a Montana-based mining expert who has worked on risk assessments, and projections of potential damage and reclamation costs, for mining operations all over the country (including Minnesota’s pending projects). Fifteen years ago, he pegged unfunded cleanup liability at somewhere between $1 billion and $12 billion.

Nowadays, Olalde writes,

In Arizona, roughly $500 million of the more than $600 million worth of hardrock reclamation bonds overseen by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality sit in corporate guarantees and self-assurances. These forms of bonds allow the mining firm or a related entity such as a parent company to guarantee reclamation against its own financial strength.

Because regulators don’t call on bonds until a company is in dire straits, experts say these guarantees are effectively worthless. “In Arizona, I’d have a hard time suggesting that if a company goes bankrupt, anybody should expect anything more than zero,” said Kuipers. …

Olalde gives gracious acknowledgement to the industry’s constant assertion that we’re in a bright new era of environment-friendly mining because of modern methods, higher consciousness among mining engineers and executives, tighter government regulations. On the other hand:

An Earthworks report studying the mines responsible for 93 percent of U.S. gold production in 2013 found every site had at least one pipeline spill, such as diesel fuel or dangerous cyanide solutions used in gold processing. About three-quarters of the mines also harmed nearby groundwater or surface water, “including impacts to drinking water supplies for residential homes and businesses, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, and fish kills.” An estimated 50 million gallons of water polluted with toxic metals still flows from the country’s hardrock mines daily, the Associated Press revealed in February.


Though it’s a little beside the main points here, I can’t resist sharing Olalde’s calculation that the 2 billion pounds of toxic waste generated by metals mines in 2017 is equivalent in weight to 5,000 Boeing 747s, and amounts to “a full half of toxic waste generated by all industries across the country.”

***

Though we’ve passed the vernal equinox, let’s go for one more walk in snowy woods, shall we? In Vermont, say, with a couple of field biologists sorting through the mysteries of moose decline, and the writer David Dobbs, taking notes for his Atlantic story, “Climate Change Enters Its Blood-Sucking Phase.”

Necropsy is the principal activity here as Dobbs watches Jake Debow and Josh Blouin search out and dismantle huge animals whose radio collars have stopped moving across the landscape.

The immediate cause of death is no mystery — the moose have been sucked to death by ticks, whose numbers and feeding success are surging as harsh winters decline. Still, big questions remain about the patterns of moose death and what, if anything, can be done to respond.

Having hoisted a 270-pound calf carcass aloft on a portable, tree-mounted scale, then lowered it back to the snow, the investigators note that its weight is about two-thirds of normal and begin gathering other measures:

Debow took a six-inch steel ruler from his jacket pocket, kneeled behind the moose’s shoulder, and, with his hands, parted the fur and held it down, as one might hold a stiff-spined book to spread its pages, to expose a narrow, tick-width channel of skin some six inches long. Rather, he exposed not the moose’s skin, but some 50 ticks that completely obscured it. …

[He] called out square-centimeter tick counts to Blouin: nine ticks in the first square centimeter, seven engorged; eight in the second, none engorged; 28, four engorged; eight, none. This count would later produce an estimated infestation total of just under 14,000 ticks. This was actually far fewer than they often found, but it was enough to render this calf chronically anemic from January through March and then acutely, fatally anemic in the last couple of weeks of his life.

Part of this piece is about the complex relationship among climate trends, weather patterns and ground-level ecological response, rendered in a minimally technical way. Another, stirring part traces the herd’s rebound from near destruction as the New England forest itself recovered from the ravages of 19th-century logging:

This recovery, the noted environmentalist Bill McKibben has written, is one of America’s greatest and perhaps least-recognized conservation victories. In the past 50 years, and especially the past 30, many of the species driven out centuries ago have returned. They came down from Canada or over from lands west to which they’d retreated: eagles, peregrine falcons, other birds of prey; pine siskin and black-throated blue warblers; salmon and brook trout; beavers, bears, bobcats, fishers; and moose.

The moose was the last to reappear. …

Adult moose are huge, with females averaging more than 800 pounds and males about 1,100, and some weigh as much as 1,700 pounds. Yet this ponderous, overbuilt beast can run as fast as 35 miles an hour, which would pose some competition to most elite racehorses. See ya, Secretariat. Even belly-deep snow barely slows a full-grown moose. In water, the same moose could swim neck and neck with Michael Phelps at his fastest, about six miles an hour—and after a couple hundred meters, as Phelps fades, keep that pace for another two hours.

Moose were so successful on their regained landscape, in the absence of historical predators, that by the 1980s they had become forest wreckers, garden pests, highway hazards (1,000 collisions per year across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine!). They were not timid.

Three years ago, in my adopted hometown of Montpelier, Vermont, I emerged from the hardware store early one summer Sunday morning and watched as a moose wandered casually down the empty Main Street sidewalk before me—just me and her at the moment—gazing at store displays and peering into the local dive, Charlie-O’s (“Good Drinks and Bad Company Since the War Between the States”). We parted ways at Main and State. Later I learned that when someone called the police saying that a moose cow was looking confused on State Street, a cop drove over, flipped on the party lights but left the siren silent, and from a respectful distance, slowly escorted her past the golden-domed statehouse to greener spaces beyond.

Hunting was resumed as a form of population control, and helped a little, but nothing like the patterns of tick infestation that have emerged in the last decade, killing 50 to 80 percent of collared calves, while depressing the size and fertility of cows, and shifting the age distribution of the herd in a troubling direction.

Getting to the bottom  of this situation requires getting to the bottom of some carcasses, a feat Debow and Blouin accomplish with fillet knives and tree-trimming loppers, on slick ground, while endeavoring not to tumble into a half-dismantled moose. These passages may not sit well with squeamish readers, but I found that the tour of moose innards, healthy and diseased, deepened both my admiration for this majestic, suffering creature and my grief over its demise.

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