December 1, 2006

Coal: Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia

Coal: Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia

Appalachia fall foliage

Turning this… [Radio Rover / Flickr]

MTR in West Virginia

…to this [Vivian Stockman / OHVEC / Flyover courtesy SouthWings]

Our latest global warming hour showed that burning coal for cheap electricity threatens the world’s climate. But coal wreaks havoc long before it gets to the power plant.

Coal can be dug underground or in surface strip mines — and one form of strip-mining called mountaintop removal (MTR) is the worst of the worst. MTR predominates in central Appalachia — coal-rich and income-poor — on ancient mountains that support some of the most diverse temperate ecosystems in the world. To remove an Appalachian mountaintop to find a coal seam, you first clearcut its forest. Then you blast it with the same explosives Timothy McVeigh used in Oklahoma. Next, you fill in the nearest valley with the useless rock. When you reach the coal, you load up your 18-wheelers. And when you’re done mining, basically all you have to do is sprinkle some non-native seeds on the new moonscape and walk away. The scale of the destruction is something you have to see to register. Something that may approach the size of Delaware.

House after flood

After a valley-fill flood on Kayford Mtn, WV [Vivian Stockman / OHVEC]

The effects of MTR? Massive habitat (and therefore species) loss. Hundreds of miles of streams buried or polluted by toxins. Wells full of carcinogens or completely dried up. House foundations cracked by the force of explosions. Thick layers of coal dust on houses and yards. Floods and mudslides. Disease and premature deaths. Longstanding rural communities and culture destroyed. Local roads made lethal by speeding, overloaded coal trucks. A three-year-old boy killed in his bed by a half-ton boulder.

If you live in central Appalachia, where coal has ruled the local economy and politics forever, it’s not easy to protest without threatening the jobs of family and friends. (Nor is it clear that the Bush Administration has your interests at heart anyway.) So how can you think about saving your family from MTR? Saving your community? Saving your environmental heritage, which in Appalachia includes mountain culture, important tourist destinations, and pure air and water? The answer surely involves incorporating the real costs of coal into its final price, but is it possible to pressure politicians so closely tied to King Coal? And what about us, the consumers, who suck up electricity as carelessly as we breathe air, most often without any idea of the life it destroyed on the way to the outlet — what’s our responsibility here?

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