Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Dirty Story Behind Local Energy...

Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history and coordinator of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies at Salem State College and the co-editor of “The People Behind Colombian Coal: Mines, Multinationals, and Human Rights.” The eldest daughter of Noam Chomsky, she has led three delegations to the Colombian coal region. In an October 1 story in the Boston Phoenix, “The Dirty Story Behind Local Energy,” she explains that Massachusetts hums comfortably on Colombian coal, but the mines are devastating the land and people’s lives.

“Today Tabaco is a memory, obliterated as it was on August 9, 2001, to allow for expansion of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. On that day, employees of the Cerrejón Zona Norte mine--supported by armed security guards, the national police, and the army, which dragged some residents from their homes by force--leveled the town with bulldozers, evicting Tabaco’s 700 residents and razing its every structure. The coal from that mine now fires power plants in the Bay State,” writes Aviva in the Phoenix.

“Underground coal mines pose huge risks to the people who work in them: explosions, accidents, cave-ins, and poisoned air have killed thousands of coal miners over the years…Surface, or open-pit, mines pose different risks. Whole ecosystems are destroyed when miles of land are dug up to access the coal underneath it. In the Guajira, rivers and streams have been diverted, desertification has spread, and whole species--such as the iguana and the howling monkey--have disappeared or been supplanted. Too often, these ecosystems include people who are simply deemed dispensable by the mining companies,” continues Aviva.

The article explains that Massachusetts is the only New England state relying heavily on coal for electricity. One-fourth of its electricity comes from burning coal at the Mount Tom plant in Holyoke, the Salem Harbor plant in Salem, and the Brayton Point plant in Somerset.

“East Coast industries and power plants used to rely on coal brought in by rail from Appalachia and the southeastern US. But beginning in the 1970s, environmental regulations started requiring power plants to lower their emissions. The idea behind the legislation was for plants to upgrade their equipment and install scrubbers that would catch toxic particles (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide) during the burning process. But many plants found that they could reduce their emissions by simply switching to higher-quality, cleaner-burning coal, such as could be found in the open-pit coal mines of the western US,” she explains.

“By the 1980s, two major US energy companies, Exxon and Drummond, were exploring another source: Colombia’s vast, untapped, and clean-burning coal deposits. Soon these two companies were shutting down their US mines to shift production to Colombia. Not only was its coal clean, it was inexpensive: government subsidies and cheap labor provided an important incentive. And Massachusetts plants soon had another reason to make the switch: it’s actually cheaper to ship the coal by sea from Colombia to the ports of Massachusetts than it is to move it by rail from mines in Illinois and Wyoming,” reveals Aviva.

“Although the coal from this region powers electricity here in Massachusetts--as well as much of the rest of the US and Canadian Eastern Seaboard, Europe, Israel, and Japan--Colombians see the coal only in the displacements, the contaminated air, and the scars on their land. The indigenous Wayuu village of Tamaquito has no electricity, nor health services, running water, or schools...The company has bought all of the farmland, leaving the village an isolated island,” writes Aviva, adding that Cerrejón’s slogan is “Coal for the world, progress for Colombia.”