For the Conservation Movement, It’s Almost Heaven, West Virginia

Shepherdstown, West Virginia

By Monica Medina, Founder and CEO of Our Daily Planet

And now, for those of you who need a break from a long week of impeachmentpalooza, take a trip with us to Shepherdstown, West Virginia — a small town, nestled at the northeastern edge of the Shenandoah Valley, practically an exurb of Washington, D.C. It is steeped in a history that dates back to before the Revolutionary War, but now visitors just stop by on their way to the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park or the casinos in Charles Town just down the country road.

Shepherdstown is also a microcosm of this pivotal moment in the conservation movement in the U.S. It is the nerve center of the campaign to eliminate coal power in the United States, home to a cutting edge waste to energy facility built with innovative Italian technology and a non-profit that uses satellite images to shine a light on oil pollution and illegal fishing in isolated ocean waters, and ground zero of a fight over whether to allow a new manufacturing facility that would be built in here in the U.S. to avoid tougher environmental laws in the company’s home country of Denmark.

The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign is based in Shepherdstown because its Director, Mary Anne Hitt, lives there, but also because the campaign is true to its grassroots working within coal communities to close all 231 remaining coal facilities in the U.S. Already the campaign has helped to close 299 coal plants nationwide – they are now more than halfway to their goal. But they are also working to replace those plants with clean energy solutions such as wind and solar, and they are working to end coal mining from nearby mines in Appalachia and mines as far away as Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. And with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, this campaign is not going away any time soon. In June with more support from Bloomberg, they launched the next phase, which will also work to end fracking and power the nation with 100% clean energy.

Also nestled in Shepherdstown is SkyTruth, a small but feisty nonprofit environmental watchdog that uses the latest high tech tools like satellite imagery, remote sensing data and even artificial intelligence to identify and monitor threats to the planet’s natural resources. They were the “whistleblowers” on the longest-running oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and led to the government’s eventual prosecution of Taylor Energy. Using satellite imagery going back over thirty years SkyTruth has also created detailed maps of the growth of the mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia to measure its environmental impact. And now they are busy monitoring the high seas to identify large illegal fishing vessels and ocean dumpers and alert the authorities.

Just down the road, you will find the Entsorga West Virginia plant – it is the first in the country to use a state of the art Italian technology called HEBioT, or high-efficiency biological treatment that turns municipal trash into biofuel in less than three weeks. The facility has high tech sensors that separate garbage to collect biomass, plastics, and other carbon-based materials. Then, through the use of large fans and ordinary hardwood mulch, the garbage is cleaned, composted, then separated and shredded into small pieces one-inch in size, and that can then be used as fuel for the cement factory next door, which used to burn coal, thus lowering the greenhouse gas emissions from both the cement factory and the local landfill.

But another new heavy industrial plant proposed nearby, which is sited across the street from one of the local elementary schools, has divided the town. The Rockwool facility, being built by a Danish company, when completed will burn 84 tons of coal each day to make super-efficient insulation. Many town residents worry that pollution from the plant’s three 25-story tall smokestacks will threaten their health, contaminate their well water and soil, and drive away tourists who come for white water rafting on the Potomac, and the clear views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to the carbon emissions, the plant would also emit an estimated 133,000 pounds of soot into the air each year, and destabilize the land – already there have been 12 sinkholes on the construction site. The plant had planned to use natural gas as fuel, but the State of Maryland blocked the construction of a pipeline to the plant that would have traveled under the Potomac River.

Though some locals support the plant because it will bring high paying construction jobs to the area, most think it’s not worth the pollution. Unemployment is low in this part of the state and the average income level is high. Construction on the plant has begun but the protesters are not giving up. The opposition group, Resist Rockwool, has outlined plans to escalate civil disobedience, start a global boycott and disinvestment campaign. And they are led by Tracy Danzey, who recently completed a one-woman protest “march” across Denmark, which was especially remarkable because Tracey lost a leg to a rare form of cancer due to exposure to toxic chemicals in another small town in West Virginia. She and the other members of the resistance are determined to win and retain their piece of “almost heaven,” even if it scares off other polluting industries from settling in Shepherdstown.

As Fast Company recently noted, this generation of Shepherdstown residents is determined to build a clean, high tech future as a way out of their fossil fuel economy. If they can do it, surely we all can. Let’s hope the whole country will follow their lead.

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