"It's the worst thing you've ever seen in your life," Cooper says as he steps back from a screen that displays photo after photo of what he calls "mountaintop removal," a coal-mining practice common in many parts of Appalachia including Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. "It looks like the moon, doesn't it?"
Cooper made his presentation Feb. 25 during a workshop at the seventh annual Students United for a Responsible Global Environment (SURGE) Conference. In a switch, organizers moved the two-day conference, titled "Empowering a Progressive South, Community by Community," to Durham's N.C. Central University after a six-year run at UNC.
Cooper was one of about 40 presenters at SURGE, which brought together 250 mostly college students for workshops, speakers and entertainment. SURGE cofounder Dennis Markatos-Soriano said the number of participants was down from the 300 the conference drew in 2005, but the switch to Central was a significant step forward.
"It's exciting that a predominantly white organization has connected well with a historically black campus and a great conference happened out of that," Markatos-Soriano says. "It gives me hope. We want to develop this relationship much further in the future."
Cooper's business card reads: "Mountaintop Removal Road Show," and that's what he spends his time doing, traveling wherever he can from his Lexington, Ky., home to tell folks about the destruction happening daily in Appalachian coal country. Instead of an electronic gadget, Cooper carries a 4-inch thick pack of white index cards, each one listing contact information for a place where he has spoke.
"We have this voracious and insatiable appetite for electricity in this country," Cooper says. He wants people to understand the dire environmental consequences of our conspicuous consumption.
Cooper placed a low-wattage florescent light bulb, a motion detector and a programmable home thermostat on a table, examples of things people can do to reduce electricity usage.
Rather than burrow into a mountain to remove coal deposits, the mining company simply uses large amounts of explosives to blow up parts of the mountain and remove the coal. More than 3 million pounds of explosives are used each day for mountaintop removal, Cooper says, and 300,000 acres already have been flattened by the practice--with no end in sight.
"These mountains aren't going to grow back years from now," Cooper said. "They're still going to be flat a million years from now."
Once the mountaintop is blown away, other problems begin, Cooper says. After the coal is mined, the leftover earth is pushed into mountain valleys, where it pollutes streams.
Because coal must be washed as part of the mining process, there is a waste product called slurry, a sludge-like product that is left to sit in "sludge lakes," Cooper says. More than 650 such lakes, holding billions of gallons of "black goo," dot the Appalachian landscape, he explains.
In addition, mountaintop removal is far less costly than traditional mining methods, Cooper says. A huge machine used to collect the exposed coal "does the work of hundreds of men," Cooper says, eliminating scores of jobs.
Cooper urged attendees to get their Congressional representatives to back "The Clean Water Protection Act" (HR 2719), a bill that would "prohibit mining waste from being used for valley fill, and would protect streams across America from being used as waste disposal sites."
Sharing the stage with Cooper was N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network representative Pete McDowell.
With Progress Energy and other utilities promoting a wholesale return to nuclear power, McDowell says environmentalists are at "a critical crossroads in North Carolina in terms of energy policy."
McDowell said a return to nuclear power will result in a disincentive for utilities to work toward energy efficiency.
"If they build these plants, they will shut down the sustainable options," McDowell says.
More upbeat environmental information was presented by Ivan Urlab of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, Liz Veazey of the Southern Energy Network and Lyra Rakusin of the N.C. Solar Center.
Heather DeBethizy spoke about a SURGE-sponsored community bicycle loan project that is being developed in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, where riders can borrow bikes for local trips. DeBethizy said motorists collectively drive 2.5 million miles per day just in Orange County, and more than 70 percent of air pollution comes from cars. DeBethizy hopes the loan program will help develop a "bike culture" in the community.
Several dozen advocacy groups set up information tables at the SURGE conference, and a connection was made to the plight of the state's black farmers by conference keynote speaker, Gary Grant, who is executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Tillery and the National Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.
To learn more about SURGE, visit www.surgenetwork.org or call (919) 960-6886.