Monday, November 2, 2009

Some Rich Men Came & Raped the Land...and Nobody Caught Em'

Recently we passed through the coal country of West Virginia and Kentucky on our way to Lexington. This is a land of sharp contrasts, steep canyons, tall limestone bluffs, and deep poverty. As we wound our way through the little towns that dot these canyons, many of them bearing dark black scars from the coal that is being ripped from the earth there, we passed a strange blend of boarded up businesses and run down houses right next to state of the art schools that seemed strangely out of place. We hoped the schools represent this areas hope for the future and that the people here understand that by educating their children instead of sending them into the mines to suffer a slow and painful death, perhaps they can carve out some kind of real future for them.

While coal will continue to be mined here for many generations, the process is being increasingly automated, and thankfully for their health but furthering their poverty, the number of workers needed continues to decline. In the meantime however, coal mining continues to dominate this area. Trains filled with coal line the tracks that run down the narrow canyons for miles. Black seams of coal protrude from the bluffs and the mine shafts and conveyer belts spring from the hillsides high over the towns. There is a kind of dark grey tint from the coal dust that covers everything. Every once in a while a Burger King or a Wendy’s pops up with it’s shiny fa├žade designed to mask the bleak existence of these hard working people, but right next door the shuttered windows and rusting cars can’t hide the broken dreams of the businesses and people that once flourished there.

But by far, the most insidious thing that is taking place in this part of the country is the practice called MTM or Mountain Top Mining by the coal industry. It is more accurately called MTR or Mountain Top Removal by its opponents. Recently this practice has been receiving more attention as the likes of Daryl Hannah and other celebrities who are working to end it. If you not familiar with it, this method of mining will shock you to say the least. First any and all vegetation is indiscriminately removed. Then the blasting begins to remove the “overburden” which actually consists of the topsoil and any rock that lies on top of the coal. This overburden is then dumped into the surrounding valleys and becomes “holler fill” where it buries the small streams that run through them. The coal is then removed until all that is left of the mountain is a flat barren plain. Although the coal companies were originally supposed to return the mountains to their “pre-mining contours” in most cases they are given waivers allowing them to create "a level plateau or a gently rolling contour with no highwalls remaining." The Bush administration in one of their more brilliant moves further eroded any protections by changing the rules to allow the dumping of the overburden directly into the headwaters of the streams. Under these heinous violations of the Clean Water Act, as well as any sensible interpretation of the Environmental Protection Agency charter, almost 500 mountains have now been destroyed and over 1000 miles of streams have been buried. The EPA estimates that by the end of 2010, over 1.4 million acres will have been leveled with the permits they have issued.

I urge you to learn more about massive ecological damage being inflicted by MTR and to help end this practice. Our use of coal to generate over 50% of our energy is already causing us huge problems by releasing massive quantities of greenhouse gases as well as other pollutants like Mercury into our ecosystems, but MTR is like coal mining on steroids and the effects are devastating. Here are some excellent links to learn more:


  1. Did you also take a tour of the ghettos in New York, Detroit, Chicago,Los Angeles? If not then shut your mouth about Appalachia and move to one of the above mentioned "paradises" and live happily ever after.

  2. We have been through the poorest parts of some of the cities you mentioned, and just like Appalachia, we object to the exploitation of the people that have to live there. The coal companies however are not only destroying peoples lives, they are destroying the land on which they live. The recent fly ash spill in Tennessee showed vividly how little regard they have for the safety and well-being of the residents. The stunning natural beauty of the Appalachia is being systematically destroyed one mountain at a time, while the future of the people who live there is being compromised for short term profits. And unlike the ghettos of the big cities which never were a thing of beauty, this “paradise” can still be saved from complete destruction.