At whatever the cost to poor people, endangered cultures, and the environment, this country’s energy industry and government are determined to get cheap fuel. While Arabs in Iraq give their blood for the potential profits of the U.S. oil industry, and Bush threatens them with more war, a much quieter and slower price is being exacted on poor Appalachians in our own country for the profits of the nation’s coal industry. On December 4, a federal court will hear a case that concerns a little known battle being fought by West Virginians to save their beloved mountains, homes, and way of life from the devastating effects of an illegal form of mining called mountaintop removal.
West Virginia is known as “The Mountain State,” and Mountaineers have what could only be described as a spiritual attachment to the Appalachian Mountains. Many West Virginia families have lived in the mountains for numerous generations and have developed a strong cultural dependence on the Appalachian landscape and its diverse forest and wildlife. For the last hundred years, coal has been a major industry in West Virginia, and coal companies extract an average 168 million tons of coal from the state’s mountains every year. Though coal miners in West Virginia have a rich legacy of labor struggles and union organizing, the coal industry has remained harmful to labor, the environment, and the economy.
In the 1980s, the already abusive practices employed by coal companies to extract coal from the Appalachian Mountains got even worse. In addition to deep mining and strip mining, coal companies started using a technique they call “mountaintop mining.” This type of mining is more popularly and accurately known as “mountaintop removal” or “valley fill strip mining.”
In this extreme style of strip mining, coal companies blast up to 800 feet off the mountaintop to get at the thin, low-sulfur coal seams underneath. As they level the mountaintop, the so-called “overburden”—rock, shale, and dirt that gets removed—is dumped into the valley next to the mountain, filling it up. What are left are big, flat moonscapes scarring the wooded hills and succulent valleys that once rolled and dipped without interruption. At least 500 square miles of forested mountains and valleys have already been wrecked by mountaintop removal/valley fill strip mining, and thousands more are slated for ruin.
Mountaintop removal mining has profound effects on both the regional ecosystem and residents who live near mountaintop removal sites. The coal companies and politicians continue to claim that it is beneficial to West Virginias, while the people who live in the areas where mountaintop removal is intense are rapidly losing their clean water and air, their jobs, their houses, and their culture.
Living near a mountaintop removal sight is dangerous. Coal companies use heavy explosives to blow away layers of rock and expose the coal seams underneath. The blasts are so powerful that they shake nearby residents’ houses, knock pictures off their walls, rattle their dishes, and over time crack foundations and cause severe structural damage. Sometimes, large chunks of rock, known as “flyrock,” soar off the blasting sites and slam like rockets into homes in the vicinity of the blasting zones. In addition, the intense explosions often cause wells to go dry, leaving residents without a water supply.
The practice of mountaintop removal is quickly destroying the environment. Perhaps most affected are the mountain streams that feed the entire mountain ecosystem. Many of the valleys that get filled by the leftovers of mountaintop strip mines have small streams winding through them. At least 897 miles of Appalachian streams have met their end in this way, forever buried under with piles of shale and rocks. These headwaters are crucial to life in the Appalachian ecosystem because they are home to organisms known as “leaf shredders,” which dwell at the very bottom of the food chain.
Not only is solid waste dumped in the valleys from the removal of mountaintops, but the liquid waste left over from washing the coal for market often becomes fill material as well. This waste, a toxic mixture of chemicals, coal particles, and water, is pumped into valleys that have been dammed up by the coal companies, forming huge slurry ponds. This sludge is another threat to the mountain streams. Runoff from the ponds and dams regularly pollutes citizens’ water sources, and the potential danger of the dams giving way makes residents who live near them constantly nervous.
Deforestation is another huge problem posed by the removal of mountains. Over 300,000 acres of hardwood forest have been wiped out by mountaintop removers. Due to the absence of trees and the change in terrain, several devastating floods have hit the residents of coal mining counties in the last few years.
Mountaintop removal mining is so detrimental to people and the environment that it is hard to believe it can be allowed to continue. In actuality, this kind of mining is prohibited by the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Reclamation Act. But the political climate in West Virginia is so controlled by the coal industry that the governmental agencies in charge of granting permits and overseeing operations turn a blind eye to the coal companies’ violations of the law.
Citizens’ groups in West Virginia are struggling against great odds to save what is left of their mountains, their homes, and their Appalachian culture. They say that they live in a “National Sacrifice Area,” suggesting that their well-being is being forfeited so the rest of the country can enjoy cheap energy. Approximately 75 per cent of coal mined in the United States is used in power plants, and these plants provide about 56 per cent of the country’s energy. In the past several years, numerous environmental groups in West Virginia and other Appalachian states affected by mountaintop removal have focused their efforts on ending this egregious form of mining and bringing their struggle to the national arena. In small towns, nestled in the heart of coal country, citizens’ groups are organizing to force agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection, to do their job and protect water and air quality. These groups have had some successes, but the endless appeals process—not to mention coal company connections and power—make their struggle slow and difficult.
In 1999, environmental groups finally won a huge victory against the coal companies. A federal judge ruled that valley fills that affect streams are illegal under the Clean Water Act. Judge Charles Haden’s ruling sent the state into turmoil as coal companies threatened massive economic failure and thousands of layoffs while politicians predicted a government budget meltdown. After all of the doom saying, Judge Haden’s ruling was overturned on a jurisdictional issue. Nonetheless, he has since ruled on another case involving mountaintop removal in Kentucky. His latest ruling is being appealed, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear arguments on December 4. Since his ruling, there have been no new mountaintop removal permits issued. Of course, the practice continues at the hundreds of sites already possessing permits.
Just in case Haden’s ruling is not overturned, President Bush has approved a definition change in the Clean Water Act to exclude mining waste from the kinds of “fill material” prohibited from being dumped into streams. Senator Shays from Connecticut and Senator Pallone from New Jersey have introduced legislation to reverse Bush’s proposed gutting of the Clean Water Act.
West Virginia’s own representatives are conspicuously absent from the list of congresspersons cosponsoring the bill. The coal companies have many citizens convinced that coal is good for West Virginia, and they have the politicians hooked on cheap energy and generous campaign contributions. This, even though the counties that are richest in coal continue to be the economically poorest in the state, and the number of people employed by the coal companies continues to decline every year. Currently, there are less than 14,000 West Virginians employed by coal companies, accounting for only three per cent of the state’s workforce. This decline in employment is partly due to the mechanization of mining and the replacement of labor-intensive deep mining with more machine-intensive mountaintop removal mining.
As a result of the nation’s demand for cheap, low-sulfur coal—the kind found in Appalachia—residents in the small mountain communities are losing their way of life. Many small towns are losing their populations and economies because of the negative effects that mountaintop removal mining has on jobs and the environment. In many instances, citizens are being forced to abandon their family lands due to the intense water pollution and the danger of living in the vicinity of the blasting. In addition, the unique way of life found in these small communities is threatened because the survival of the culture is dependent on survival of the mountain ecology. As coal companies chew up ever-expanding tracts of land, community residents lose access to the forests where they traditionally hunt and gather plants such as ginseng, mushrooms, and ramps. And the destruction of the mountains themselves, objects of great reverence and spiritual attachment for people in West Virginia, is an indescribable blow to the hearts of folks who have spent their lives nestled in these protecting hills.