Wendell Berry: EPA's duty to limit the Party of Coal

In Kentucky: Public servants vs. public

September 8, 2013 

Wendell Berry of Henry County is an acclaimed novelist, essayist, poet and environmentalist.

TOM EBLEN — Herald-Leader

The two-party arrangement in Kentucky really has not much to do with Republicans and Democrats. The two parties that actually matter are the Party of Coal and the Party of All Else.

The second of these, unlike the first, is not a one-interest party. It is necessarily diverse, for it includes many interests, some of which are not primarily or exclusively human. It includes most notably a substantial number of people who respect the ecological principles of wholeness, coherence, and endurance. They understand moreover that all living creatures are dependent ultimately on the integrity of ecosystems, which are unities composed of an immense number and diversity of creatures.

These Kentuckians of the Party of All Else are pleased to consider that the motto of an ecosystem is pretty much the same as that of their commonwealth: United We Stand, Divided We Fall.

The Party of Coal is less diverse and less interesting. There is nothing duller than its hundred years of fanatic self-regard. Its members believe in Progress and Truth and Hard-headed Realism. They know that Hard-hearted Realists have more good common sense than other people, which obviously is their reason for joining the Party of Coal.

When Hard-headed Realists find the Truth standing in the way of Progress, they put their right foot on the head of Truth and step boldly into the future.

But do not be fooled. Do not suppose that the Party of Coal's interest in coal has distracted it entirely from other subjects of interest. In fact the Party of Coal is well known for its ecological awareness. It is capable of focusing so intently upon certain ecological details that it solicits the help of ecological experts, some of whom are already employed by the Kentucky Division of Water, a belonging of the Energy and Environment Cabinet.

By such means, the Party of Coal has achieved some authentic ecological knowledge. To mention only a few examples:

1. This Party knows that it's greatest ecological accomplishment is the mining technique known as mountaintop removal, which is always accompanied by valley fills. From an ecological point of view, these polite terms refer to blowing a mountain to pieces, destroying its forest cover, its community of native species, and its topsoil, and then covering the adjoining valleys and streams with the non-commercial fragments.

2. It knows that such immense disturbances of the deep layers of the earth release a variety of toxic substances that are water-borne and are carried downward even by the streams that have been buried.

3. It knows that one of these toxic substances, invariably discharged from coal mines, is selenium, a poisonous metal that accumulates in the bodies of many species of aquatic life, causing deformities, reproductive failures, and death.

4. It knows that the effects of selenium can be quick-acting and long-lasting, that most species of fish are absent from the streams below coal mines, and that among the species most sensitive to selenium are bluegill and catfish.

5. Without such ecological sophistication the Party of Coal would not know, as it clearly does know, that to impose a safe limit upon the discharge of selenium from surface mines would put such mines themselves under threat of extinction.

And so the Party of Coal arrives at its own version of an ecological solution. By political means that require no explaining, it causes the Kentucky Division of Water to propose an increase of the allowable limit on selenium in streams to 12 times the present limit.

The justifications for this are famous for their subtlety:

1. Mountaintop removal and valley fills answer Kentucky's need for more level land.

2. The industry's sediment control ponds, which cannot leak and cannot overflow, have in effect repealed the law of gravity.

3. If, unbelievably, some toxic pollution should escape into streams — well, bluegill and catfish don't matter except to people who fish and people who eat fish.

4. A public issue, such as the poisoning of streams, is none of the public's business, if authentic public discussion and participation can be shortcut or prevented. And so water pollution by coal mining becomes a case so familiar in Kentucky as to seem conventional: public servants versus the pubic.

The Party of All Else, on the contrary, includes people who understand that ecological damage is extremely difficult to limit; if aquatic life is damaged or destroyed in headwater streams, then the aquatic life downstream is inescapably and adversely affected.

They understand, therefore, that humans cannot be exempted from threats to the lives of their fellow creatures.

To all this, the Party of Coal responds with it own motto: We Don't Care.

The Party of All Else, whose language is unintelligible to the Kentucky Division of Water, now has made its appeal to the Environmental Protection Agency.

To prevent its own contamination by selenium and other toxic effluents of Kentucky politics, the EPA needs to wipe its eyes and do its duty.

Wendell Berry of Henry County is an acclaimed novelist, essayist, poet and environmentalist.

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