The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Coal barons’ chronic affliction: Mumpsimus.

Fighting for the future of PA Coal dot org, billboard adjacent to a solar-powered meat packer.(First published in the Gettysburg Times, 7/12/2013)

While the nightly TV news blathers on about fires in the west and floods in the northeast, with barely a mention what might be causing the growing catastrophes, a battle of a different, though related, sort may be brewing in the Pacific Northwest.

Many roads in Pennsylvania, especially in the western part of the commonwealth, are lined with billboards touting efforts to keep jobs and blaming the EPA for regulating jobs out of existence. Many of us believe the claims. Either we know a family that has lost at least one coal mining job, or we watch the evening news that every now and then mentions EPA Clean Air regulations causing electricity generators to switch to natural gas.

Unfortunately, we miss the part about electricity generators switching to natural gas because the stuff is cheap. Relatively speaking, darn near free. And it burns cleaner than coal. Not clean, but cleaner than coal.

And we miss the part about coal from the Appalachian Mountains and Wyoming’s Powder River Valley being stripped away, the energy-laden but environmentally dirty rock shipped to China, India and other growing Asian economies.

Not long ago, similar obfuscation was employed when tobacco and Nestle’s baby formula ran headlong into claims their products were deleterious to human health.

So they moved their sales effort to Third World nations where, they apparently presumed, by the time those ignorant purchasers learned the perils of the products, the purveyors would have gone on to their reward. Now it is coal’s turn. Already mile-long trains run virtually one behind the other between the coal fields and existing shipping ports.

One of the major players, Arch Coal, boasts on its website that its Black Thunder operation “is the largest single coal mining complex in the world and the first coal mine in the world to ship 1 billion tons.”

Transport is on Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail systems. Clearly, coal is still in the game. Some reports describe 30 trains a day of 100 cars each, making their way to ship terminals, dropping tons of dust and coal along the way.

I used to live downwind of Pennsylvania coal-fired power plants. That was when I learned about acid rain – the kind of rain that blows past coal-burning industries and heavy populations of motor vehicles, picking up poison it then drops on unsuspecting folks several states downwind.

It kills lakes, and ruins vehicle paint jobs. And those who profit from generating the problems refuse to acknowledge they exist. As they refuse to admit their contribution to the fires and floods plaguing our nation.

My inbox one day last week contained a word to describe the affliction: mumpsimus. It’s one of those words that sounds as bad as it means, referring to folks who cling to a belief in spite of overwhelming hard evidence to the contrary.

It seems a 16th Century preacher accidentally coined the word. While expounding to his congregation, he let fly the Latin phrase, “quod in ore sumpsimus,” meaning “which we have taken into the mouth.” Unfortunately, the word he actually spoke was mumpsimus, and when the tongue tanglement was called to his attention, he refused to acknowledge he had made an error. In fact, he insisted, he’d been using “mumpsimus” for many years, and guessed he would keep using it.

He could, a few hundred years later, well have obtained lucrative employment announcing that coal is clean, and companies diligently trying to employ Americans are hampered by federal regulations that attempt to ameliorate non-existent problems with our allegedly steadily heating planet.

What seems odd is some of the same people who claim to be thinking of their grandchildren seem actually more intent on amassing huge piles of Confederate cash – it looks good where they’ve been, but it’s absolutely worthless where they’re going.

Or, as the Wizard of Oz famously declared, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”


  1. Another great job. I see coal trains going through here on their way to the ports. I think they hose it down first, because I don’t see clouds of dust that used to be common.

  2. They may, some, but then the coal-laden water runs into the creeks and rivers. Meanwhile, there are estimates that each car leaves about 500 lbs of coal and dust along the tracks. That doesn’t sound like must in all the tonnage being hauled, but it adds up quickly when you start counting 100-car trains.

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