Bad dust

All around the West, there are pockets of asbestos and other hazardous substances that, when disturbed and inhaled at certain concentrations, can be really bad for you. I just found out about another one, called erionite, which is found in rocks and soil of western North Dakota, and acts similarly to asbestos. For decades, people re-surfaced gravel roads with stones that contained erionite, not knowing it’s a potential carcinogen. The oil boom has created even more truck traffic on some of these back roads, sending great clouds of dust into the sky with more frequency, and scientists are concerned about people being exposed to erionite this way. Read more here.

Oil truck in North Dakota. Courtesy Flickr user Tim Evanson.

Oil truck in North Dakota. Courtesy Flickr user Tim Evanson.

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Coal…again. This time on the Navajo Nation.

For the past few months I’ve been researching a big story on the future of the coal industry on the Navajo Nation. That story isn’t coming out until March-ish, but I wanted to write about something important that happened recently–the Navajo Nation bought a coal mine. There’s a pretty broad range of opinions on this decision, not surprisingly. Some people say it’s a huge step forward for tribal energy independence. Other say it’s a bad business move. Read more here.

Young protester outside the Navajo Nation council chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.

Young protester outside the Navajo Nation council chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.

Wilderness in 2014

One of the most romantic environmental laws of all time turns 50 in 2014. That’s the Wilderness Act, a law so beautifully written it could appear in a book of essays. I mean, let’s talk about the definition of wilderness itself: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Right?

Wilderness areas face very different challenges today than they did 50 years ago. Technology threatens to alter our experience of remoteness and self-reliance, airplanes are a near constant presence, and of course, climate change means the footprint of man is ubiquitous. To get a sense of the status of the wilderness experience in 2014, I interviewed Troy Hall, a professor and head of the department of conservation social sciences at University of Idaho. Here’s a bit of what she had to say. For more, read the full interview here.

On finding solitude in crowded wilderness areas: “People are really adaptable. Even where they run into a lot of people they often will say, “it was busy on the trail but when I got to a lake I could find a beautiful area where I was by myself.””

On attracting a more diverse crowd to wilderness areas: “Wilderness and things like watershed protection, clean air and wildlife habitat are extremely well-supported across demographic groups in society. So even demographic groups that don’t visit wilderness tend to place very high value on it.”

Enjoying the Hoover Wilderness in California.

Enjoying the Hoover Wilderness in California.

The economics of coal hit home

When I learned that the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public power company, was going to close down a number of its coal plants, it seemed like a big deal to people here in the North Fork Valley. That’s because our local coal mines have sold lots of coal to TVA for years. So I blogged about it for High Country News and made a radio piece for KVNF, my local public radio station. In conclusion: decisions made far away affect us even here, a small town where the Rockies meet the desert, where it’s easy to think you’ve escaped the outside world.

Taken from my back yard. Coal mine scar up left on the mesa, orchards in the foreground.

Taken from my back yard. Coal mine scar up left on the mesa, orchards in the foreground.

Guns and cactus don’t mix

While researching this story on target shooting in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert National Monument, I came across a lot of YouTube videos of guys blasting saguaros, barrel cactus and prickly pear with shotguns. It happens more than it should, as does illegal dumping and vandalism at popular shooting areas. In 2011, Bureau of Land Management staff decided to close the monument to protect it from the worst impacts of shooting, but then politics got in the way. My latest for High Country News.

Saguaros outside of Tucson, AZ.

Saguaros outside of Tucson, AZ.

Death at a silver mine

On Nov. 17, two men died from carbon monoxide poisoning at the recently reopened Revenue Virginius mine outside Ouray, Colorado. The historic silver mine had just reopened after being shuttered for 30ish years, and people in Ouray County were excited to have the industry back. Now that excitement seems muted. I rounded up the situation in this blog post for High Country News.

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Abandoned mine somewhere in Colorado. Courtesy Flickr user katsrcool.

I’ve been thinking recently about why I like writing about mining and energy so much, and I think it’s because there is this huge disconnect between the appliances and gadgets we use and the minerals and fossil fuels required to produce them. Sometimes it seems ridiculous that in order to have cutting edge electronics, we need guys to crawl into holes and blow stuff up and dig it out. And then to power those gadgets, we burn rocks. And risk peoples lives.

Covering coal

It’s really been all coal all the time for me recently. From the story I’m working on for High Country News about changes in the Navajo Nation’s relationship to coal, to covering the EPA’s Denver hearing on carbon dioxide regulations from existing power plants, I’ve been thinking of little else. Here are two recent stories about that Denver hearing: one for the radio and one for HCN’s blog, The Goat.

What's this chunk of coal doing in my garden?

What’s this chunk of coal doing in my garden?