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Archive for March, 2012

In March the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club visited the largest remaining grove of Montezuma cypress trees (Taxodium mucronatum) in South Texas.  These majestic trees are growing along the banks of a Brownsville, Texas resaca, an oxbow lake that was once a channel of the ancient Rio Grande.  Enormous Montezuma cypresses once lined the banks of the river and all of the resacas that snake throughout Brownsville, but the wood was highly prized for its water resistance, and the trees were cut and used to build the wharves for early Brownsville’s port.

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There are only a few large trees left along the Rio Grande watershed, and the Brownsville site is one of only 2 actual groves remaining.  The cypress’s seeds need to float in water for a time in order to germinate, so the end of ancient natural flood cycles in the highly engineered watershed, along with the mowing of stream and resacabanks, has kept them from making a natural comeback.

The Rio Grande Valley is the northernmost range of the Montezuma cypress, which is the national tree of Mexico.   The Aztecs called it ahuehuete, old man of the water, and once upon a time, when wetlands and resacas were plentiful around river systems, these “old men” grew to enormous sizes.  They are, after all, in the same family as giant sequoias and redwoods.  The “Tule Tree” in Oaxaca, Mexico is a Montezuma Cypress that has the stoutest trunk of any tree in the world.  (It takes 17 people with arms outstretched to span its circumference!)

The City of Brownsville owns about half of the resaca and, thanks to the efforts of community activists, has recently agreed to protect it.  Efforts are ongoing to secure the remaining portion of this amazing vestige of the ancient freeflowing Rio Grande.

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Power plant from the Beehive Collective graphic, The True Cost of Coal

By Stefanie Herweck

The story begins with an intact ecosystem and lives that depend on the land, the work that is done there, and the shared culture that grows up around these activities.

But this scene of biodiverse landscapes and healthy, sustainable communities is torn apart with a blast.

The top of a mountain is scraped off and dumped into the valley stream below to expose a thin coal seam.  The few workers it takes to mine the coal are destroying mountains where they hunted and fished as children, but they have no economic alternative.

When they finish all that is left is an exposed, barren landscape and a local culture eroding away along with the mountain’s remains and the mine’s polluted runoff.  Looming over this regional destruction are the storm clouds of global climate change that gather strength from the greenhouse gases emitted by the power plants that the coal feeds.

This is the visual story of Appalachia and the effects of mountain top removal coal mining as told by the Beehive Design Collective in their graphic The True Cost of Coal, which will be touring the Rio Grande Valley March 28 through 30.

In 2008, members of the nation-wide artist-educator collective began gathering the stories of hundreds of people in Appalachia whose lives had been affected by mountain top removal coal mining.  An elaborate illustration evolved from these conversations.  The graphic exposes the economic, cultural and environmental impacts of coal mining and coal burning.   It reflects the complexity of the struggles for land, livelihood, and self-determination playing out in Appalachia.  It also analyzes the role of coal in globalization, mass consumption, climate change, and environmental injustice.

Mountain top removal mining and the costs of coal-fired electricity may seem far removed from the Rio Grande Valley, but we too burn  coal and support dirty coal mining operations through our electricity use.  Magic Valley Electric Cooperative, a prominent electric provider in the Rio Grande Valley, is a member of South Texas Electric Cooperative, which in turn gets some of its power from the San Miguel power plant, located off Highway 281 about 50 miles south of San Antonio.

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Even though San Miguel is the smallest power plant in Texas, it’s one of the dirtiest.  It burns a particularly polluting form of coal called lignite.  The lignite comes from the nearby San Miguel strip mine, operated by Kiewit, where each year 300 acres of the rural south Texas plains are torn apart and transformed into brown dirt piles.  (See the photos of San Miguel in the slideshow above.  More photos of the mine are found on the Kiewit site.)

Since the lignite has a low energy density compared to other coal, the San Miguel is extremely inefficient, requiring 3.3 million tons of lignite per year.  Lignite also has a higher ash content, meaning that San Miguel generates more waste.  In fact, nearly 2 million tons of ash have to be hauled away from the power plant each year and dumped in nearby pits.

Even more dangerous than the waste that is hauled away is the waste that San Miguel’s smokestack belches.  Although all coal-fired power plants emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming, lignite produces much higher concentrations of the greenhouse gas than most coal.

San Miguel also makes the Environmental Integrity Project’s list of top mercury polluters, with the fourth highest mercury emission rate in the entire United States.  Mercury is a highly toxic metal that rains down on streams and lakes, accumulating in the fish and seafood that we eat.  In our bodies it acts as a neurotoxin, interfering with the brain and nervous system.  Children and unborn babies are extremely vulnerable to even low levels of mercury exposure, which can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, and kidney disorders.  One seventieth of a teaspoon is enough to contaminate a 25-acre lake, and San Miguel emitted 3,247 pounds of it from 2000-2010.

The good news?  San Miguel is ripe for retirement.  Because it is so small and so dirty, it does not make economic sense to install the type of pollution control upgrades that will be required under new clean air protections.

The Electric Cooperatives that own San Miguel are guided by their customer-stakeholders.  They are not a distant transnational corporation, they are us.  South Texas Electric Co-op and Magic Valley should act as responsible members of the community by switching to forms of clean power generation and bring an end to San Miguel’s terrible pollution and environmental destruction.

Just like Appalachia, it’s time for South Texas to acknowledge the true cost of coal and move beyond the dirty fuel into a clean energy future.

See The True Cost of Coal and learn more about the Valley’s coal problem.  Complete listing the Beehive Collective Rio Grande Valley Tour times and locations is here.

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