Coal power plants may make the most financial sense to build, but perhaps the least environmental sense. Emissions from coal plants are one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. On a global scale, the World Bank and the Obama administration are making moves to shift foreign energy development away from coal-fired plants, but the domestic coal industry maintains powerful champions in the U.S. Congress. The huge piles of coal sprawling along the Mississippi River near Ironton bear testament to that fervent support.
But even with Congressional proponents, the long-term survival of coal as a profitable export seems dim to community activists in Ironton. They see the RAM terminal as a last-gasp effort to squeeze what remaining profit margins exist in an industry where production is so linked to ecological destruction that eventually the limit will be reached. Ironton residents feel stuck in the middle—presented with vague promises of new jobs that will somehow offset the continued environmental degradation of their soil, water and air; long term sustainability traded for short term economic gains.
The geographic distribution of industry has changed within the United States. Sixty years ago, the port of New Orleans would have been the logical place to locate an export terminal of any kind. But scarce industrial land in the city, not to mention the much stronger political will of the population to oppose an environmentally questionable development, makes constructing a project like a coal terminal difficult in areas with larger populations. Over the past 50 years, manufacturing and industry have preferred to build such things in rural areas. Industrializing rural communities is attractive to companies for several reasons—the land is cheaper, the labor is cheaper, and the political landscape easier to navigate. Such small communities also tend to have less access to media, or to organizations dedicated to environmental or governmental watchdogging, many of which are based in cities.
Ironton, however, is fighting back. A coalition of local leaders, organizers and media makers from around the region are raising their voices against the RAM project. Audrey Trufant Salvant is among them. To hear both Audrey and another Ironton resident, Cornell Battle, speak about Ironton and their struggle against the RAM coal terminal, please listen to the interview montage above.
Darin Acosta has spent his entire life exploring and documenting the wetlands, oil infrastructure and forgotten blight of South Louisiana and studied urban and environmental planning at the University of New Orleans. Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development.
Their current work, The Airline is a Very Long Road, is an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.