It’s impossible to escape bias. Through readings, documentaries, and lively class discussions, students in the VAMPY Sustainability course have considered a broad range of topics—climate change, food production, energy consumption, housing, solid waste management, recycling. Yet every “authority” we’ve consulted brings some bias to the table. Two recent site visits offered students the opportunity to form their own opinions as they witnessed first-hand the environmental impact of a strip mine and a landfill.
Our first stop was the Yellow Banks River Terminal on the Ohio River east of Owensboro. Our host was Derek Smith, an Environmental Scientist with Western Kentucky Minerals and a graduate of WKU. Smith began by explaining the mining process step by step, from locating minerals underground, to securing necessary permits, through extraction and reclamation. Students were also able to handle core samples and drilling equipment. Smith then took us into the field to see an active mining operation, as well as several examples of property that has been reclaimed. The grand scale of the entire project underscored the fact that having electricity in our homes involves a lot more than flipping a switch.
By the same token, disposing of solid waste is a bit more complicated than rolling the trash barrel to the curb on Tuesday. Constructed on the site of a former strip mine, the Ohio County Balefill is licensed to receive residential, commercial, and institutional waste from across Kentucky and beyond. As with mining, the solid waste industry is governed by a host of regulations. In particular, they must monitor effects on groundwater and air quality, as methane gas is continually produced as trash decomposes. General Manager Kevin Phelps said he is currently processing about 700 tons of solid waste per day, and when the landfill reaches capacity—some 60 years and 90 vertical feet in the future—it will be the highest point in Ohio County. Once again, students had the opportunity to see reclaimed land, as well as the active landfill itself.
It may seem odd to learn that an environmental scientist works for a coal company or to hear the general manager of a landfill talking about sustainability. But it was good to see a positive counterpoint for some of the more reckless practices we’ve learned about in class. And we were certainly reminded that these businesses exist to meet the demands of consumers. And that’s all of us.