Go tell it on the mountain

The very same day that President Bush, in his State of the Union address, told us we are addicted to oil, North Carolina’s attorney general sued the Tennessee Valley Authority in U.S. District Court in Asheville, alleging that TVA is creating a “common-law public nuisance.”

But there’s more to this tale than spin and political power plays: Pollution (in the form of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, particulate matter and mercury) is endangering both our health and the local tourist economy, which is based on our beautiful mountain ecosystems.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to watch a movie called Kilowatt Ours. It was written, produced and directed by Knoxville resident Jeff Barrie, who’s on a crusade to show us the very practical implications of our present use of electricity.

I am no neophyte in energy matters; I built a solar home in Mars Hill in 1998. The sun supplies about three-quarters of our electricity and heats most of our water. On sunny days, we can actually watch the meter run backward as we route the electricity we generate to the grid.

Having practiced medicine in North Carolina for 32 years, I also understand the health implications of our addiction to electricity. Each year I see more children with asthma and recurrent respiratory illness, and I’ve stopped eating tuna and many other fish because of mercury contamination. (Mercury released by power plants settles in our oceans and other waterways, where it gradually works its way up the food chain.)

The power of Kilowatt Ours resides in its graphic depiction of the impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining on people, communities and ecosystems in the Southern Appalachians. Our everyday way of life (and particularly our ever-growing, mindless addiction to all the modern electronic conveniences) comes at a profound and very tangible cost. Each time we flip the electric switch to light our homes or dry our clothes, we’re helping light the fuse on a stick of dynamite that blows up another piece of a mountain in neighboring Kentucky or West Virginia. And the next time we don’t turn off the TV, radio, computer or other electronic device when we stop using it, we’re helping poison the ground water around these mountain communities with the dregs of water used to wash the coal burned to generate electricity.

But it doesn’t stop there: Each time the switch is turned on, more carbon goes up the smokestack, and the earth warms. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995, according to a December 2005 report by the World Meteorological Organization. Many climate scientists are convinced that we are close to a tipping point beyond which the Earth will become a very different place. Are we going to bring a Florida climate to North Carolina in the not-so-distant future?

As we watch coral reefs die, glaciers and ice sheets melt, and island residents seek refuge in new lands, we witness the profound moral consequences of our energy addiction. Indeed, we are foolishly imperiling the stability of the very foundations of life.

But Kilowatt Ours isn’t all gloom and doom; Barrie also leads the viewer through the many practical steps any renter or homeowner can easily take to curb his or her electricity consumption. Jeff and his wife, Jennifer, share the joy they experience when they make the power shift. They also show how communities, businesses and school boards can make a difference.

This past November, Asheville became a Cool City by signing the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The new mayor, City Council and city manager are investigating how we, as a city, can begin to comply with that agreement.

Our local coal-burning power plant at Lake Julian installed scrubbers last year to comply with the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act. Although this will help, there are more advanced technologies that would do a more thorough job, particularly in curbing mercury pollution. Meanwhile, there is still no restriction on carbon-dioxide emissions — the main culprit in global warming.

It seems worth noting here that according to our state constitution, “All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.” And government aside, wouldn’t it be wonderful if our public utilities voluntarily worked for the good of the whole by doing more to reduce mercury and carbon-dioxide emissions — and by refusing to buy coal mined by mountaintop removal?

Jeff Barrie is coming to town to screen his film and lead discussions (Sunday, Feb. 19, 2 p.m. at downtown Asheville’s First Baptist Church; and Thursday, Feb. 23, 7 p.m. at Asheville Community Theatre). I encourage all area residents to join him in exploring a new relationship with energy.

[Richard Fireman, M.D., serves on the state steering committee of The Climate Connection: NC Interfaith Eco-Justice Network and is co-chair of Caring for Creation: Interfaith Partners of Western North Carolina, the project’s regional branch.]

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