Dispatch One

Yellow City Diesel low emissions, low sulfur gas pump
Jonathan Matthews

England and Wales, UK—The bus from Heathrow airport is nearly full, and a sticker posted on its back bumper advertises reasons to opt for public transportation over a personal car: "Avoid high petrol prices and the hassle of parking!" Petrol prices here are around 75.9 pence per liter, which translates to nearly five dollars a gallon. Low-sulfur diesel—a popular alternative in the UK—is a tad more expensive, but can yield nearly twice the gas mileage. During the two hour ride, I see mostly smaller European cars on the M4 highway—Volkswagen, Citroen, Opel—and a few small model Fords and Nissans, some diesel, some not. Only one sports utility vehicle moves high and wide through the tide of cars. Who can afford it?

I am en route to Bristol, England to rendezvous with a team of about 20 Penn State students and faculty. The group is eight days into a two-week international excursion, part of an undergraduate course called "Energy and Society: Industrial Revolution to Industrial Ecology." The students on the trip, sponsored by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, are in the UK to explore different methods of energy production: oil, gas, coal, water-power, solar, geothermal, and wind.

When I arrive at the bus terminal in Bristol, the sky is overcast and a chill wind blows spits of rain in my face. I hop into one of the group's two diesel-powered vans, joining Semih Eser and Jonathan Mathews, faculty members in the energy and geo-environmental engineering department, and students Duane Castaldi, Lauren Kologe, Lauren Ziatyk, Becca Klossner, Pete Clark, and Eric Chastain. The students are a bit punchy from lack of sleep and long days on the road. It's 2 p.m. and everyone, including driver Mathews, looks bleary-eyed. They had a late night at a local pub—a farewell party for student Katie Strauss, I'm told. Strauss left the group early to volunteer with an organization called Engineers Without Borders in El Salvador.

Despite last evening's revelry, the students rallied by eight in the morning, par for the course on this trip. Today, they began an exploration of the roots of the industrial revolution by climbing aboard the legendary steamship S.S. Britain, designed in the 1820s by the great Isambard Brunel. The ship, a coal-powered, long-range passenger vessel hulled with iron, far exceeded the size of its nearest competitor and in its day boasted the most powerful engine in the world. Now it is docked permanently in Bristol, a monument to the pioneers of modern industrial technology.

This afternoon, buzzing along in the van, we cross a suspension bridge over the Severn River into southern Wales. The terrain goes from flat to hilly—lumpy, actually—and it looks as if a blanket several shades of green has been draped over the countryside. This part of Wales is reminiscent of parts of Pennsylvania, except that the hilltops here are denuded of trees. The result is stark and almost inhospitable, but beautiful nonetheless.

Like Pennsylvania, the industrial history of Wales centers on coal. While the group stands in the cold wind and rain in Blaenavon, student Marielle Narkiewicz reads a brief report she prepared before the trip about the significance of the big pit—pwll mawr in Welsh—a former industrial site nestled among the hills. Coal mining and iron production thrived in Blaenavon in the 18th and 19th centuries and, at the height of production, a quarter-million tons of coal each year were chipped from the ground and pulled to the surface with the help of a steam powered elevator system. The advent of the railway allowed industrialists to bring southern Wales' anthracite, touted as a clean-burning fuel, to markets throughout England. Welsh coal even powered the Titanic in the early 20th century. But with the growth of steel production, the iron industry collapsed and the last furnace at Blaenavon shut down in 1904. By 1980, the only coal left in the pit was too deep and expensive to extract. In the last two decades, coal mining has fallen off 90 percent, and depressed villages stand half-abandoned in the valleys. Jobs are scarce and many of the people who remain draw on unemployment.

The lumps in the landscape, Narkiewicz reports, are really hundred-year old piles of culm, a waste product of coal processing. In places where the vegetation has eroded, we can see the black debris hulking underneath. In the 1960s, in nearby Aberfan, a culm pile that had been deposited over a spring collapsed during a storm. The landslide crushed the local village school, killing nearly all of the children inside. Mathews shares this sobering story as we wind along roads at the edge of the valleys, the rain pelting the windshield of the van. Seconds later, the sun bursts through the clouds and a brilliant rainbow arcs over the illuminated Welsh hills.

Last Updated May 01, 2003