[Vision2020] 11-16-18: What Terrible Injustices Are Hiding Behind American Energy Habits?

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Fri Nov 16 18:59:12 PST 2018

Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett

What Terrible Injustices Are Hiding Behind American Energy Habits?

By Itai Vardi <https://www.desmogblog.com/user/itai-vardi> • Friday,
November 16, 2018

When someone charges a cellphone or flips on the lights, what costs are
felt by the far-off communities that produced the coal or gas powering that
home? What happens to those same communities when a utility decides to
switch from coal power to natural gas? And what keeps these impacts of
American energy habits hidden from view?

New research helps provide some clarity. A study led by
Noel Healy from Salem State University in Massachusetts analyzes the hidden
but interconnected injustices that can occur throughout the world’s fossil
fuel supply chains.

The research project spanned three sites: a power plant in Salem,
Massachusetts, recently decommissioned and converted from coal-fired to
natural gas; the Cerrejón open-pit coal mine in La Guajira, Colombia, which
was the primary coal supplier to the Salem plant for over a decade; and
hydraulic fracturing (fracking) sites in Pennsylvania, which now supply
natural gas to the power plant in Salem.
A Coal Mine’s Impacts

Healy and his colleagues Jennie Stephens from Northeastern University and
Stephanie Malin from Colorado State University reveal what they call
“interlinked chains of injustices,” or how local energy decision-making in
one region generates social and environmental injustices in other,
distant ones.

Reliance on coal mining in La Guajira to turn on the lights in
Massachusetts supported a mine that over more than three decades has
forcibly displaced several nearby indigenous communities and tried to
suppress, with bloody results, union activity. The mine’s operations have
been linked to widespread pollution from coal dust and the destruction of
fishing and hunting grounds, leaving La Guajira plagued by food insecurity.

“Some villages were bulldozed, communities forcibly removed, like the
Afro-Colombian community of Tabaco,” said Healy, who has conducted research
surrounding the Cerrejón mine. “Others were displaced via the ‘slow
violence’ of contaminated farmland and drinking water.”

“Communities live in fear,” he added. “We witnessed high levels of
community trauma, anxiety, and stress.” In the communities Healy
interviewed, children reportedly suffer from respiratory illnesses and some
people are afraid to drink the water.

“Mining operations have destroyed the social and cultural fabric of
communities within the region, traditional migration routes have been cut
off, and communities lost access to sacred sites and ancestral grounds,”
Healy said.
Colombian Coal to New England Power

Aviva Chomsky, a Salem resident, professor, and activist, has long fought
to bring attention to the injustices surrounding the Colombian mine by
making them more visible to its end users in New England.

“Most of us like to think of ourselves as good people who would not
deliberately harm someone or take advantage of someone,” Chomsky told
DeSmog. “Yet we are the beneficiaries of a system that harms and takes
advantage of a lot of people — and we collaborate with it because we are
able to not see the harms.”

Chomsky is the founder of the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee (
NSCSC) and has organized speaking tours for several of La Guajira’s
indigenous leaders and activists in Massachusetts.

“We need to hear the voices of the people displaced and the lives and
livelihoods destroyed by coal,” said Chomsky. “In La Guajira,
Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities are crying out for the world to
see what is happening to them and to support their struggle for recognition
and reparations from the coal company that has destroyed their farming
communities and left them dispossessed.”

And while activist pressure has led local political leaders in Salem to
acknowledge the injustices wrought by the reliance on coal, there’s a
reluctance to extend the same recognition to the effects from
Pennsylvania’s fracking fields, where Salem’s power plant now sources its
energy feedstock.
‘An economic logic that allows some places to be destroyed’

The study led by Healy has found that energy injustices in one place are
perpetuated in another when regulators fail to account for them. For
example, the extraction, processing, and transportation of natural gas to
Salem were not considered in the formal siting process when the power plant
made the switch from coal.

The devastation in these zones is “often shielded by the absence of
effective regulatory frameworks, and is normalized by an economic logic
that allows some places to be destroyed in the name of progress, profit,
and national and regional economic interests,” Healy and his
colleagues wrote.

Just as troubling, the researchers found that companies involved in the
supply chain perform what amounts to greenwashing these injustices in order
to justify their operations. The current owners of the Cerrejón mine
rebranded the mine as “Cerrejón Minería responsable” (responsible mining),
and launched a system of charitable foundations to complement its corporate
social responsibility division.

In Salem, the new owners of the natural gas-fired plant downplayed the
dangers of fracking by claiming that form of extraction can be done safely
under appropriate regulations.

Chomsky echoes these findings: “It takes a lot of work to see these
injustices since they are deliberately hidden from us. Coal companies and
energy companies make great profit off of a system that depends on our
complicity. We enjoy cheap electricity — and we don’t have to see the
destruction caused by the extraction of the coal.”

As in the case of the Colombian coal mine, it is mainly up to local
activists at the site of consumption to make the injustices at the point of
extraction visible to the end consumers. Recently, several Massachusetts
organizations, including Mothers Out Front and Clean Water Actions, organized
a speaking tour
by four Pennsylvania activists impacted by fracking.

For many Massachusetts residents, it was their first exposure to such
harrowing tales of schools suffering from benzene pollution; farmlands
decimated by drilling wells, trucking, and fracking fluids; and drilling
leases gone awry.
An Energy Disconnect

As energy production has increasingly shifted across borders, so too has
the disconnect between places of energy consumption and those of
energy production.

“There is a clear ‘consumer blindness’ and citizens and residents are often
unaware of where the fuel they consume is coming from and what injustices
were inflicted on communities within those sites of fossil fuel
extraction,” said Healy. “Exposing these injustices of energy ‘sacrifice
zones’ — like in La Guajira or Pennsylvania — could be critical for future
energy policy decision-making.”

He suggested energy consumers team up with climate and human rights groups.
Together, he said, they can call on policymakers to recognize the impacts
along a particular energy supply chain when regulators fail to do so.

Reaching the Paris Agreement’s goals for limiting climate change, however,
also means getting off coal and risks perpetuating some of the same
injustices as other energy transitions. Healy said the Colombian government
should establish plans for what is known as a “just transition
— ensuring environmental sustainability along with social and economic
justice — for the department of La Guajira.

“Otherwise if the mine shuts down tomorrow, a whole region will become
stranded,” said Healy.

He pointed to Spain’s plans for shuttering its coal industry.

“They included early-retirement schemes for miners over 48, environmental
restoration in pit communities and re-skilling schemes for new green
industries,” he said before proposing who should finance such a transition.
“The close relationship between Cerrejón and elected officials meant the
mine reaped the benefits of favorable tax breaks. It is clear that Cerrejón
has benefited most from decades of coal extraction, and it is Cerrejón who
should be held accountable for reparations for all the damages caused to
the region.”

*Editor's note 11/16/18, 12:03 p.m. PST: This story has been updated to
correct the spelling of Noel Healy's name. We regret the error.*
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