Communities in the vicinity of the Drummond mine face the same poverty, displacement, and environmental contamination as those near Cerrejón. In the town of La Loma, where most workers retreat to sleep after their 12-hour shifts, they frequently find that there is no water or electricity.
“We’re not against coal mining,” says José Julio Pérez, the president of the Tabaco displaced villagers’ committee (and the brother of the late Aura Pérez), who now lives with his wife and five children in a two-room shack in Albania. “We just want the mine to compensate us for the damage it has caused. We’re asking the mine to relocate our community. We just want it to respect our human rights.”
Bridging the gap
The impact of Colombian coal on Massachusetts communities is complex. Energy companies, such as Dominion Energy — owner of the Salem Harbor and Brayton Point power plants in Massachusetts, and one of the largest buyers of Colombian coal in the US — tout its environmental benefits: Colombian coal has very low sulfur and ash quantities, so it burns cleaner than most domestic coal. It’s also cheaper than domestic coal, which helps keep down the costs of electricity.
But environmental organizations such as HealthLink, a North Shore group founded in 1997 in response to concerns about contamination from Salem’s coal-fired power plant, take a somewhat different view. They believe that switching to a different kind of coal is a Band-Aid solution, or perhaps even a way of evading environmental laws.
“In Massachusetts, Colombian coal is a way for Dominion to delay having to install costly capital equipment to meet our state’s clean-air regulations,” says HealthLink founder Lynn Nadeau. In addition, as its name suggests, HealthLink takes a holistic approach to the impact of fossil fuels and the true cost of coal to our society. Shifting coal mining to Colombia doesn’t reduce environmental destruction — it just relocates it. “Colombian coal exploits cheap labor and causes vast environmental degradation [there],” adds Nadeau, “making many areas uninhabitable.”
Since 2001, a small group of coal consumers in Massachusetts and elsewhere have pressed Cerrejón — as well as the power companies that buy the coal — to change its treatment of local communities. Some of these Massachusetts residents have lobbied, met with mine and power-plant officials, and visited the Colombian mines to investigate the conditions for themselves. They have also invited union leaders and village representatives from Colombia to Massachusetts on numerous occasions. In Salem, the mayor and the city council have both advocated for the human rights of those affected by coal mining in Colombia.
Salem’s mayor, Kimberly Driscoll, issued a statement after meeting with José Julio Pérez, declaring the city’s support for Tabaco’s relocation struggle. The Salem City Council also condemned the mine’s destruction of Tabaco and called for the town’s relocation to be “carried out promptly and effectively, so that the inhabitants of Tabaco can rebuild their community and lead productive, shared lives.”
Dominion Energy has been a bit more reluctant to speak out publicly on the issue. Representatives from that company met with Pérez in March 2006 and issued a guarded statement the following month.