States Worth Protecting
Updated: Sep 8, 2018
My parents sold their New York State dairy farm in the late 70's to pursue opportunities elsewhere. They chose to move to Washington State and take part in the booming timber industry after seeing an ad in the back of a Hoard's Dairyman magazine. The ad was for a small ownership share in Stevenson Co-Ply plywood mill. The share would allow my parents to reinvest their farm sale proceeds and earn a higher wage on the mill floor. So they loaded up their four small kids of which my twin sister and I were the youngest and drove across country to the Pacific Northwest.
I count myself lucky for being able to spend my childhood in Washington State's beautiful mountains hiking, hunting and working. Our large family enjoyed an incredible quality of life in one of the world's most beautiful spots. We would often jump into the latest incarnation of our signature late model station wagon vehicle of choice and drive out to places like Big Cedars County Park up above Willard Washington or go for a swim down at Rowena Park just outside Mosier Oregon. Our lack of money and handheld technology ensured that our family was very outdoorsy!
As a West Coaster displaced from his homeland by his marriage to an East Coaster, I have often contemplated how to best replicate my childhood adventures out here in these foreign lands. West Virginia has always figured prominently in those mountain man dreams with its incredible landscape, colors and of course proximity to the in-laws.
What if that Hoard's Dairyman magazine ad that captured my parents' imagination all those years ago had instead been for a share in a West Virginia Coal Mine? Our family could have done well during these times like many 1980's and 90's coal families. I certainly could have grown up hiking, hunting and working in West Virginia's beautiful mountains. Our late model station wagon could have ferried us and any neighbor kids lucky enough to score a seat to any number of great outdoor spots.
The most significant differences between a Washington State and a West Virginia childhood wouldn't have been realized until years later. Today, my own small family can still go to Washington's Big Cedars Park and make the same hopeless attempt to stack up enough river rock to dam the Little Salmon River. We can still go to Rowena and look for the spot where generations of families who knew where to go swung out into the river on a well-used rope and sturdy branch. Much has changed in my small corner of Washington State, yet everything that matters is just as I left it all those years ago.
Too much of West Virginia has unfortunately not been as lucky in the intervening decades since my parents pointed their 1975 Bonneville west for parts unknown. It has lost too much of its natural beauty and healthy environment to coal mining, mountaintop removal coal mining in particular. Don't get me wrong, West Virginia still has a lot of beautiful natural places to enjoy but perhaps the spot my family would have chosen as its weekend picnic destination would no longer be safe. Maybe the small river where we would have played is now downstream of a mine that is releasing heavy metal pollutants into area streams and rivers. It might be that the West Virginia rope swing my childhood family would have frequented is now buried under the overburden that has been pushed into the valley as a part of the mountaintop removal coal mining process.
Like my family's fortunes in Washington State, my parents may have done okay financially had they chosen a coal miner's life over life in timber, but the similarities end there. My dad certainly has pain related to his years working on the plywood mill floor, but a career spent in the mines could have left him struggling to breathe from black lung disease or worse. My corner of Washington State like much of the country is still hoping for a return to better economic times, but at least we still have our land. What will West Virginia be able to build once the coal mining eventually stops and heavy metals pollute too much of its land and water? How will its communities create new futures as well as keep and attract hard-working families if mountaintop removal coal mining turns too much of the state into an industrial landscape?
We as a country deem some states to be expendable while designating others for preservation. Washington State is lucky in that its tech wealth and the influence it wields has enabled it to join the unspoken list of states worth protecting. This coveted list includes but is not limited to Washington and California on the West Coast and New York and Florida on the east. There is no chance that a Washington State mountaintop will ever be removed in pursuit of coal or other resource and New York banned natural gas fracking on its own soil despite Wall Street serving as a significant financing source for the practice elsewhere. Florida is where much of America's wealthy come to play, and California is, well, California.
There are countless examples of states being asked by powerful influences to bear unacceptably high health and environmental costs so that we in the states worth protecting can enjoy a life free of such sacrifices. We think nothing about letting West Virginians bear the high costs mountaintop removal coal mining exacts on their public health and environment. We give no consideration to the generations of miners who have suffered and died at the hands of black lung disease or the families that have to rely on unsafe drinking water. These are the kinds of hidden costs that aren't reflected in our monthly utility bills.
The most significant challenge to face the states worth protecting came in 2017 when the current administration started pressing to open the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine to offshore oil exploration. Nearly all affected states including my home state of Florida protested immediately. These states made impassioned pleas about why they couldn't possibly tolerate offshore oil exploration and eventual drilling. The reasons given varied from the ecological to the economical but the subtext to all of these reasons was wealth and influence. No one wants to see their ocean view obstructed by oil rigs or their local shoreline industrialized with onshore drilling support infrastructure.
Why is it that we as a country find it perfectly acceptable to build out one of the world's most advanced offshore drilling and onshore support infrastructures across Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama but believe that the Eastern seaboard is somehow too valuable for such development? Why aren't cash-strapped states enticed to allow the same kind of development Texas, Louisiana and Alabama have had for decades in pursuit of the billions in tax revenue and economic activity that offshore drilling would undoubtedly generate?
We take for granted that there will be gas available when we pull into a pump yet give no thought to the sacrifices Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama have made to make that resource available. Texas and Louisiana's coastline is home to many petrochemical plants and refineries as well as offshore oil rigs and supporting infrastructure. The communities that make up this part of America's coast had born the unrealized costs of our consumption since 1866 when Texas struck oil for the first time.
The most recent unrealized costs of gulf oil drilling and its associated industries include cleaning up the dangerous chemicals that flowed down Houston streets during 2017's Hurricane Harvey and the 130 million gallons of oil released into Louisiana and Alabama's coastal environment during the 2010 BP oil spill. The cleanup costs Houston families incurred, or the losses Louisiana and Alabama seafood fisherman faced aren't captured by what we pay at the pump.
The unreimbursed costs most of our Gulf Coast states bear on our behalf are what first came to mind for me when the government recently considered lifting the ban on east coast oil exploration. Why is it that our country is okay with letting the people of Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama bear the high uncompensated costs inherent to oil field development, extraction, refinement, and transportation? Why is it that my home state of Florida has been deemed too valuable to develop the fuel resources that most certainly exist off its shores? Why is it okay for oil rigs to dot Louisiana's coastal horizon but not Maryland's or New Jersey's? Why is it alright that Alabama's commercial shrimpers have to worry about the next oil spill but not Massachusetts' lobstermen?
I support oil exploration along Florida's coasts not because I doubt that there will be a high public health and environmental price to pay, not that further advancing a fossil fuel economy is the wrong energy strategy for our country and not because I doubt that the mere presence of offshore oil rigs would hurt my state's economy. I support oil drilling off Florida's coasts because we shouldn't ask other states to bear costs that we aren't willing to bear ourselves.
Mark's Author's Notes:
I wrote this post as the complement to my “Hard Work and Compromises: An American Experience” piece in which I talked about how my family was impacted when dad lost his livelihood due to new environmental regulations. This post leverages that experience to inform why I responded positively to the federal government opening the Atlantic Coast up to offshore drilling.
Sustainable development is the process by which costs that aren’t realized in the price of a product or service is identified and addressed. The goal is to eliminate or mitigate these unrealized costs through increased efficiency, or adoption of new processes or technology. The final step in addressing the remaining balance of any unrealized cost is to have those who benefit most pay the remaining balance.
I am the person who in the case of West Virginia coal or Gulf Coast oil benefits from these resources without paying for their full costs. We Floridian’s contribute little to the development or conservation of these resources and have failed to realized our state’s incredible clean energy resource's extraordinary potential.