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Beyond Coal: A Resilient New Economy for Appalachia

TitleBeyond Coal: A Resilient New Economy for Appalachia
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsTodd, J., Doshi S., and McInnis A.
Date Published10/2010

Coal mining has dominated the economy of Appalachia for more than a century and has drastically altered much of the regional ecology. Among the primary impacts of coal mining are degraded soils, slurry impoundments, contaminated streams, polluted air, human health effects, and a reduction in biodiversity. We address the broad issue of Appalachia's future by proposing an alternative to the devastating large-scale practice of surface mining in central Appalachia, including mountaintop removal and valley fill surface coal mining.

We propose a theory of ecological design for the remaking of damaged landscapes and the creation of a diverse new economy with the broad participation of the people of the region. Our design approach applies ecological principles to the healing of the landscape and the formation of an economy based on natural resources and renewable energy. It includes ecomimetic technologies and techniques for the generation of new soils, the revegetation of the landscape, the treatment of wastes (including mining waste), the cultivation of foods, and the generation of fuels and other products. We see soil formation on a broad scale as the primary driver for a durable future. Without it there can be no viable economy.

Ecological design operates at three levels, or orders, of organization. It includes succession, or a time dimension, that reflects changes in the nature of the landscape and in the institutions most appropriate for each stage in the evolution of the land and its economic elements. First-order ecological design includes the formation of new soils and ecosystems, including farms, biomass plantations for energy production. It also includes ecomimetic technologies, such as Eco-Machines used for a variety of functions ranging from fish farming to the detoxification of mining wastes and the repair of damaged aquatic environments. In central Appalachia, we have begun a pilot program to create soils using perennial warm season grasses and soil-building techniques that include the addition of biochar as a carbon source. We have also established a research Eco-Machine for the study of mining waste detoxification.

Second-order ecological design links processes across different sectors such as energy and natural resources. Examples of this are ecological industrial parks where diverse entities are brought together to create new symbiotic systems utilizing each other's materials, wastes, and energy. We recommend that ecological industrial parks, with a natural resource focus, be integrated into any development plan.

Third-order ecological design provides a time dimension to the formation of a new landscape and its economic activities. For example, our Appalachian restoration model shows the transition of activities on the landscape over a 16-year period. The first year involves soil building and the cultivation of plants for biofuels and biochar. By the eighth year, agroforestry has been established, the coal slurry is being detoxified, and an Agro-Eco-Park has been established. By the sixteenth year, forestry, agriculture, biofuel production, and natural resource based materials are being manufactured. Institutions most effective in supporting the transition will also go through a succession process. NGOs, land trusts, and government should implement the first stages, followed in time by academic institutions and new regional companies. Finally, we propose that financial institutions be established to underwrite the sale of lands to the people who are working on the landscape and the creation of locally owned natural resource and energy cooperatives. Cooperatives would provide collaborative and educational support to the people of the region.