At a November forum on wind power at UNCA, a young staffer from a regional activist group puffed that he had dedicated his life to fighting mountaintop-removal coal mining, blustering that he wasn’t about to let “these NIMBYs” who oppose industrializing Western North Carolina’s ridge tops stand in his way. As a child of coal country, I share his anger over mountaintop-removal mining. But as a renewable-energy advocate with significant wind experience, I find his passion for utility-scale wind power in WNC sorely misplaced – and painfully ironic.
Let’s be clear about the term NIMBY (“not in my backyard”): It denotes someone trying to stop moneyed interests from imposing public “collateral damage” while pursuing private profits. Silk-suited spin doctors use it to imply that tough, brave heroes like mountaintop-removal foe Judy Bonds are really just spoiled, selfish airheads. It’s a badge of honor, not a slur.
Let’s also be clear about the lessons of history. Appalachia has long been treated as a resource colony, her people and places exploited to supply cheap commodities to cities in the flatlands. Frontiersmen came to the mountains pursuing the Jeffersonian ideal of small farms and trades, but the mining and timber barons quickly won the day.
Nowhere did the commoners lose more than in coal country, where petty tyrants perverted the legal systems of several states, virtually enslaving thousands. More than once, when the coal kings and their hired goons were in danger of losing control of their chattel, the full force of the U.S. Army was brandished to reassert their authority. If you’re interested in learning more, Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands and Lon Savage’s Thunder in the Mountains are good entry points to some American history most schools fail to teach.
Mountaintop-removal mining didn’t arise in a vacuum. It’s the logical outgrowth of more than a century of “polite folks” rationalizing away their theft of the commons.
In 1983, over well-financed opposition, the N.C. Legislature passed the Mountain Ridge Protection Act, outlawing major construction on the ridge tops.
Deep grass-roots support provided the political cover lawmakers needed to protect the goose that lays WNC’s golden eggs. Last summer, N.C. Senate bill 1068 codified a permitting process to encourage industrial wind development. With language that reaffirmed the clear intent of the Mountain Ridge Protection Act, it passed 42-1. The only “no” came from Sen. Steve Goss. His district includes Appalachian State University, which receives federal grants to promote wind power. The other senators represented their constituents well, too, weighing competing environmental benefits (habitat integrity versus one of many possible green-energy options) and competing economic benefits (attracting tourism and retirees versus slightly cheaper electricity).
But even a 42-1 vote apparently wasn’t decisive enough for industrial wind’s cheerleaders. At the November forum, Rep. Phillip Frye announced his plans for a short-session amendment to compromise the ridges with a “demonstration” project. In fact, thousands of utility-scale windmills have already been installed in the U.S. in recent years: Demonstrations can be found as close as east Tennessee.
Wind enthusiasts always say they favor limiting development to “appropriate” sites. But utility-scale wind turbines are more than 260 feet tall at the hub, with blades that reach 130 feet above that. Compare those numbers with the Statue of Liberty (305 feet) or Asheville’s BB&T Building (220 feet). If four-story condos are too intrusive for WNC’s ridges, how could industrial wind machines possibly be appropriate here?
Climate change is a serious threat requiring immediate, concerted action. Mountaintop removal is just as serious, and far more imminent. But both of those travesties are rooted in lapses of governance, not lack of technology options. So here’s another inconvenient truth: The voice of the people is the best environmental protection we have, especially when the apologists for intrusive industries are calling people NIMBYs. Those who care about the future of the planet would do well to realize that they’re unlikely to protect the environment by weakening hard-won environmental protections.
Born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dave Erb teaches engineering at UNCA. For three decades, he has focused his career on energy, emissions and sustainability.
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