Reduce Carbon Footprint? Ha-Ha!

I really wanted an opportunity to reduce my carbon footprint by getting rid of my gas stove and going to an induction cooktop. But alas, I live in West Virginia. Here there is no commercial option to replace methane with electricity generated without the aid of fossil fuels. In fact, in this state, we still receive 91% of our electricity from coal – the fuel source with the most possible emissions of carbon dioxide. In this state, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the current age, since we want to segregate ourselves in the past when America was great.

In this state, those companies who wish to insure they have a source of low carbon energy are viewed as radical woke environmentalists, and the legislature has made it extremely difficult to implement alternative energy sources. At the residential level, the state has left in place roadblocks against any form of community solar energy, which is about the only option I would have since our house alignment is not conducive to installing solar panels. See, we love coal in this state, and we will do our best to ensure we use this fuel source until we’ve stripped every minimal vein from under our feet. Yes, strip mining is still a thing, only we use explosives to rip off the tops of ridges in order to gain access to the black gold still in the ground. Putting the surface back into some semblance of the previous terrain? Yes, that is what the law says you should do, but even the most responsible companies kind of punt on this, leaving a slightly rolling surface good for – well, just what is this ground good for, once the top soil has been blasted away leaving behind only rubble. More on this later.

Coal mining is macho. The image in this state of a young, virile male coal miner leaving in the morning with their lunch bucket in hand, off to fulfill some companies plan to provide fuel for power plants. This image is strong and resilient. Why bother getting an education since you will likely be involved in extracting coal from the ground for a living? And make no mistake, it is a good living. It is the only job capable of sustaining a middle-class lifestyle in much of this state. But there is so much to coal mining that is bad. Since the veins of coal are so thin, any method of extracting the coal involves much more exposure to rock dust. Rock dust? Try almost pure silica. Increased exposure to silica is fueling an epidemic of black lung among the same young, virile miners mentioned earlier. Whereas black lung used to affect miners in their 50’s, this new variety is hitting younger miners, often in their 30’s and 40’s.

Black lung is not the only problem. Especially when engaging in mountain top removal, the tailings are pushed over the side of the mountain. Selenium is one of the components in the rock other than silica, and it leaches out of the exposed rocks and is released into the disturbed streams. There it can lead directly to fish kills, or indirectly lead to human disease via rudimentary water services requiring the use of the degraded water. And remember, in order to remove the rocks atop of the coal, explosives are used to blast off the overburden. The dust from these blasts settles down in the area, causing exposure to silica dust even for those who do not benefit from mining jobs. In all, a lousy way to free up a burnable resource.

Of course, we should not worry about the end product of coal combustion. Carbon dioxide is a necessary resource for plants, at least that’s what I read in anti-global warming tracts. But what is not stated (perhaps due to an antipathy towards evolution) is that existing plants are finely tuned to their current environment. Changing two of the components necessary for growth (temperature and carbon dioxide) at the same time is, as the movies have said, Risky Business. Of course, most of those who deny that climate change is real and caused by human emissions hold sway at local political levels. We see that in West Virginia where one of the State Senators with jurisdiction over coal adoration has called renewable energy a “fairy tale”. Well, sir, my education was as a chemical engineer, and in my pursuit of that education I took several semesters of thermodynamics and atmospheric science. For humanity to have the hubris to return much of the carbon sequestered over millions of years into the atmosphere in a geological eye blink and not expect any unanticipated consequences is indeed, folly. I do not care that carbon dioxide is only several hundred parts per million in the atmosphere. Greatly increasing that amount will not cause Eden to break out over all of earth. We will instead see instability of weather patterns (polar vortex invasions in winter), flooding events in summer (warmer air can contain more moisture and the increase is exponential), and an increase in what is considered clear weather flooding due to sea rise.

Earlier I referred to the land made mainly level after reclamation from mountaintop removal. What can such land be used for? Since the topsoil was scattered to the winds, the remaining soil makes a poor candidate for any growing activity. It is well suited, though, for solar farms, since this will not displace productive farmland. Can we adjust to a passive energy source after having depended upon land disruption for so long to feed the coal industrial complex? We will have to examine our soul as a state and summon the will to make legislative changes that support this change, rather than consider it a “fairy tale” suitable only for those with gossamer wings. This transition has started in West Virginia, but it is an exception, even at this late date.

The Blues of Memphis

The world has stared in horror on video screens at the murder in Memphis of Tyree Nichols. How could such an event happen? What type of culture creates people who could exhibit such a lack of human empathy when confronted with the beating death so many participated in?

I lived in Memphis for nearly 10 years. It was where I had my first job, at a chemical plant north of the city, and I lived in two apartment complexes and a house near the University of Memphis campus (I’ll always want to describe the school as Memphis State.) I was a part of the city, but I see now how much of the city I did not visit. At my plant, the racial divide was there, but it seldom was a primary concern. I can only recall one time where the violence and crime affected us, and that was when one of the operators didn’t show up for his shift. Turns out it was because he had been abducted by some folks as part of a drug transaction gone bad, and he had been locked inside of a trunk for over a day. From what I know, he was fortunate to ever leave that trunk alive. But that turned out to be only one of many instances of him not complying with corporate expectations, and he was fired shortly afterwards. This was the guy who went in and plugged up a hole on a leaking ton cylinder of sulfur dioxide. It was clear that he was fearless. But. He was ultimately not a good fit for working in a chemical plant.

I crossed paths with different parts of Memphis society from time to time. I coached our company team in basketball in the city rec league one year. Now, you must understand that Memphis is crazy for basketball. That’s why the NBA franchise there has done so well. And we did have several good players on our team, including the intern whose brother was on the Memphis State team. The only reason why Alfred was not playing major college basketball was that he was only 5’7”. When he went back to school, we picked up another guy from the drafting and blueprint room, who was about 6’4” and a professional kick boxer. He was a terror on the boards and on defense. Sometimes I think the only reason for me to coach was to allow me to call my own number, and play my 2 minutes per game where my only skill was standing still and letting someone charge into me. There was once where a guy who resembled a matchstick, about 6’6” and 66 pounds, came at me, and I distinctly remember his knees clipping my shoulder. He went down and I’d thought I’d killed him, but except for the foul he got, there were no consequences. Our team was undefeated going into the playoffs, where we encountered an older white referee, who immediately perceived any deception as traveling. I was very upset with that ref who took us out of the tournament. But that was only a partial meeting across cultural and racial lines, and I left the games to go back to my almost exclusively white apartments.

I let race wash over me during my years there. When I bought a house (back in the days of 15% interest rates), I ended up in the white neighborhood between a country club and Memphis State.  It was a nice neighborhood, and I never had any concerns about walking at late night down to the bars that a major college attracts. I would imagine my concern level would be elevated now, with an increase in street crime and the general decline occurring in the nearly 40 years since I lived in the city.

That was the thing. I lived in Memphis, but there was a whole part of the city I never set foot in. I remember driving through one neighborhood, where I saw the sign on a diner advertising the bologna sandwich. I could only wonder about a restaurant that thought enough of bologna to feature it

To say that I lived a life of white privilege is easy to see now. I participated in the party scene in the Nutcracker Ballet, and was asked back to be the king in the following production of Sleeping Beauty. There I was actually on the stage with members of the American Ballet Theatre. These are not the type of cultural events frequented by the majority race in Memphis. I lived in the city before the renovation  and resuscitation of Beale Street. So I had to make do with the Overton Square area for bars and restaurants appealing to my demographic (white, male, aged 25-34 at the time). For heaven’s sake, I saw more bluegrass bands than I did blues bands. How much more can you deny the local culture.

I lived in one apartment complex for over 5 years. Back then I would explore on my bike. Just on the outside of the complex was a street that could have been taken directly from the pages of William Faulkner. Henrietta Street it was named, and the contrast between the then new apartment complex cheek to jowl with the houses of sharecroppers was jarring. I only remember riding my bike down that street once. Not because I was scared, but just because I had so little in common with those who lived there.

With the recent beating death by police in Memphis, it is evident that the divides I saw in my time in the city have deepened over the decades.  I will always love the city and remember well the smell of hickory smoke down by the Mississippi river during the Memphis in May barbecue fest. There was something powerful in hearing Old Man River sung by a black performer as part of an outdoor orchestral concert. This city is where I learned how to barbecue, and how to be a responsible homeowner. But there was much I failed to discover, mainly because I never really shared my life with the majority of the residents. Now I can only shake my head in dismay at the actions shown repeatedly on television.