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Roadside Motherboard: A Dirty Energy Driving Tour Into Nitro, West Virginia

Dropping west at night out of the Allegheny Mountains into the deep gash of western West Virginia’s Kanawha River valley, descending a comically gnarled state highway/county road cut impossibly into the side of a sharp tributary gorge, you might be...
October 2, 2012, 7:46pm

Dropping west at night out of the Allegheny Mountains into the deep gash of western West Virginia’s Kanawha River valley, descending a comically gnarled state highway/county road cut impossibly into the side of a sharp tributary gorge, you might be startled by a sudden transition from inky, nowhere-feeling forest to the towering yellow lights of heavy industry.

That blotch of industry has something to do with coal, of course: a single tower with a conveyor, a railroad siding, a couple of outbuildings, some piles, and lots of lights. It’s startling at first, but that cuts almost immediately to eeriness. It’s night and the facility is quiet, looking more like a well-lit ruin in a rather extreme patch of West Virginia woods. Eventually this road and its endless (10 or so very long 15 mph miles, actually) doglegs and switchbacks will lead to the main valley — this little cut comes courtesy of a small Kanawha tributary — and it will be about 20 more miles west along the Kanawha on US 60 to the city of Charleston, WV. Those miles make up one of the more impressive dirty energy driving tours you can find in America.

Coal waiting to be shipped out along the Kanawha River

In terms of industry, the Kanawha River valley has it all: the production of just about every kind of chemical courtesy of DuPont, heavy manufacturing, salt, steel and other metals, natural gas, and, of course, coal. Lots of coal, shipped down into the valley (and beyond) courtesy of a matrix of rail lines jabbing into and far beyond dark mountain pockets like the one above. The industrial valley starts in earnest apparently at the point the river becomes navigable, 20 or so miles upstream from Charleston, about where the little gorge above meets the main valley. And if you were to follow that main valley upstream another 10 or so miles, hanging a right at the second big fork, you’d find the New River Gorge (protected by a National River designation, which is like a National Park), one of the most beautiful places in the Eastern U.S.

Part of why this is interesting is that not very many people I talk to know all that much about Charleston or that there’s this Detroit-looking strip of rust-hell on the backside of the Appalachians. It honestly feels a bit secret, though in reality it’s a not-too-remote outpost of the regular ol’ Rust Belt. Not far downstream from Charleston, the Kanawha connects to that Rest Belt artery the Ohio River. And if you’re sailing west from the city toward Louisville, one of the last sights you’ll see of the whole mess is the town of Nitro, WV, which has seen almost a century of intense chemical manufacturing (starting in WWI with explosives) and boasts a series of cooling towers that are not actually nuclear in nature, but just regular mountaintop-derived coal. West Virginia has a ban on nuclear energy.

Meanwhile, the state boasts no greenhouse gas caps, has no fuel economy standards, doesn’t have energy efficiency standards for new buildings, and spends over $100 million in direct subsidies to the coal industry, with another $100 million or so coming in the form of tax breaks. West Virginia is the country’s second-largest coal producer and the largest producer of underground coal. Meanwhile, coal accounts for some two-thirds of all business taxes paid in the state. These are pretty easy statistics to find; less so is anything tabulating total health and environmental costs spewed out by the industry. A Harvard study from 2011 found that if the total health and environmental costs of coal were taken into account, it would triple the total expense of coal-generated electricity, making it about the most expensive energy source on the market.

I drove along the Kanawha about a week ago at the end of the first leg of a trip from Baltimore to southwestern Colorado. I lived in Baltimore until a week ago and spent most of my growing up years in Detroit. A very long strip of heavy industry shouldn’t be all that remarkable. But this time I happened upon it almost via trap-door, which is something different. A day and a half of mountains and woods and then a back-route into Charleston along a river with highways on either side flanked by graceful, gleaming railway tracks insulating this or that factory complex. It just goes on and on, the highway turning into more and more of a busted industrial connector than a way to get anywhere. But then there’s Charleston, eventually, announced by a tangle of Interstates at it’s northeastern tip and bid farewell by its Nitro satellite and the cooling towers of the John Amos Power Plant.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.