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|December 18-24 2008
Back to Letters
Our national sacrifice area
by Paul Danish
When it comes to oil shale, Colorado’s two most prominent Democrats — soon-to-be Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and soon-to-be U.S. Sen. Mark Udall — want to make haste slowly (or even glacially), because they don’t want to see the Piceance Basin turned into a “national sacrifice area.”
Well, it’s hard to argue with that.
Nobody wants to see the Piceance Basin turned into another Powder River Basin, where more than a dozen massive strip mines produce more than 435 million tons of coal a year, and where hundreds of gas wells produce billions of cubic feet of natural gas — and hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water — from coal seams.
Or into another West Virginia, which is honey-combed with underground mines and where coal companies have strip-mined more than 500 square miles of land and filled about 1,000 miles of streams with mining rubble — and where they now are blasting the tops off mountains to get at the coal.
Nor even into another Mojave Desert, where electric utilities and energy entrepreneurs have proposed building some 80 solar power plants on 690,000 acres (1,078 square miles) of federal land.
Or, God help us, into another Boulder County, Colo.
OK, Boulder County may not strike you as a poster child for a national sacrifice area. But it is. It was crucified on a cross of gold (and silver and coal and tungsten and uranium) long ago.
According to a Boulder County Health Department survey, there are more than 500 abandoned hard-rock mines in Boulder County. There are also more than 80 abandoned coal mines. There are more than 300 abandoned mill sites. The total land area of Boulder County is 751 square miles. So the number of abandoned mines and mills in the county averages more than one per square mile. And the health department, which was looking primarily for radon gas sources, not mine and mill sites, says its count is not comprehensive.
Chances are it didn’t count several dozen former and active sand-and-gravel mines along county streams, and several big sandstone and limestone quarries, the last for cement making.
And let’s not forget the Boulder County oil boom, which saw more than 100 oil wells dug between Arapahoe avenue and Haystack Mountain during the first two decades of the century.
Most of this mining activity, which occurred between 1860 and 1930, took place without any regulation or attempt at environmental remediation whatsoever. Mine tailings were unceremoniously dumped into streams and gulches or just allowed to dribble down mountains. Polluted water — frequently carrying heavy metals like arsenic — cascaded out of mines into creeks or seeped out of mines into wells. Underground coal seams caught on fire and burned for decades. The mess created by some of the mines qualifies as Superfund sites.
Mountains were deforested in order to provide timbers for mines and ties for the rail lines that serviced the mines.
It’s not like any of this is hidden. The numerous scars of Boulder County’s mining past are readily visible from county roads. You would have to be blind to miss them.
Which raises an obvious question: why in the name of sanity would anyone want to live in Boulder County?
The equally obvious answer is because Boulder County — our own private national sacrifice area — is viewed (and correctly so) as one of the most environmentally attractive places on the North American continent, if not the planet.
Indeed, some of the most sought-after home sites are on old mining claims (including mined ones) or atop old coal mines, and properties graced with abandoned oil wells are now occupied by multi-million dollar prairie palaces.
And it’s not a bunch of dumb rednecks who are buying them. It’s the smartest guys in the room. The unincorporated areas of Boulder County (i.e. the areas where most of the mines, mills, wells and slag-heaps are found) are crawling with PhDs, MBAs and Obama voters.
All of which raises some inconvenient questions:
1) What’s so bad about being a national sacrifice area? If it’s so awful, why do property values keep going up? How come so many smart people aren’t even aware of the sea of environmental destruction around them?
2) Can it be that the environmental damage caused by the extractive industries, even by decades of unregulated mining, milling and dumping, is neither as permanent nor as onerous nor as immune to remediation as is typically portrayed?
3) In view of Boulder County’s 148 years of experience of living with mining and its aftermath, can the people of Boulder County (and by extension the people of Colorado) properly say to the American people, “Don’t develop the oil shale and natural gas in the Piceance Basin, because the place will become a national sacrifice area if you do”?
4) And, in view of Boulder County’s 148 years of experience of living with mining and its aftermath, can the American people, who own and operate more than 200 million cars and trucks (without which Boulder County’s lifestyle would be impossible), properly say to the people of Boulder County, “What’s your point?”
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