Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gainesville Loves Mountains

I lived in Appalachia for several years, and it was there that images of mountaintop removal (MTR) and its effects on the people and landscapes of the region were burned into my consciousness--images that I carry with me many years later. I learned about ilovemountains.org a few years ago, and became interested in building connections between the coal that my municipally-owned utility in Gainesville, FL consumes and impacted Appalachian communities. So, in 2011, I took advantage of a local environmental film festival to screen the movie Low Coal and bring Larry Gibson to Gainesville.

During his visit, Larry spoke at numerous public events, was interviewed by local media, and met with some of our City Commissioners, our Mayor, and representatives from our utility. His message was powerful and resonated with many in our community. After Larry's visit, we began pursuing an official policy to end the purchase of MTR-coal through our City Commission's utilities committee. We started a Facebook page for our group, “Gainesville Loves Mountains,” and asked citizens to contact their Commissioners and the utility to speak out against MTR. We received lots of positive media attention and it was clear that the Commission was hearing from people. I've seen firsthand that the more people learn about MTR, the less they want to be connected to it.

While we are having an impact on our Commissioners, the technocrats at our utility's fuels division have been steadfast in their opposition to any sort of restrictions on where they purchase their coal. As recently as last week, the Assistant General Manager of the utility was stating publicly that they remain “...reasonably agnostic on where the coal comes from, other than we prefer deep-mine coal for performance reasons.” Yet as we continued our campaign, other forces were at work.

As it turns out, the growing availability of natural gas, resulting partly from the controversial gas mining practice known as “fracking,” has driven fuel prices so low that in recent months the bottom appears to have come out from under the coal markets. Whereas our utility had previously considered deep-mined coal a luxury it could only sometimes afford, and had been using approximately 60% MTR-coal, we were able this year to sign 1-year contracts for nearly 100% deep-mined coal and still come in under budget.

It is an awkward position to be in, to have “won” our local campaign against purchasing MTR-coal, thanks in large part to another highly destructive mining practice. This “victory” is obviously inadequate, and our campaign will continue. Our goals for 2012 include:

· Continuing to discuss MTR at every opportunity. We'll host more film screenings and Appalachian activists this year, and continue to build public support in advance of the next round of coal contract negotiations later this year.

· Building a bridge between Gainesville and the Appalachian communities that provide our coal. One definitive victory that our campaign has had is a line item in all new coal contracts that requires the companies to disclose any major environmental violations. We'll be watching.

· Educating ourselves, our community, and our Congressional representatives on any federal efforts to ban MTR mining.

· Supporting a local effort for a more aggressive energy conservation ordinance that will move our community closer to a future free of electricity generated from fossil-fuels.

We want to hear what folks up in Appalachia have to say about our efforts, and want to encourage other communities that consume MTR-coal to duplicate our campaign. Please check out our new flyer (at top, I can send you a pdf version if you want) and contact us with any feedback, questions, or resources you have to offer.