Ending Mountaintop Removal

I have to admit that I didn’t know much about this subject. But my hosts here in Pittsburgh are passionately devoted to ending the practice of coal mining through mountaintop removal, so I’ve had quite an education this week. Being a backpacker, I’ve got a natural affinity for mountainscapes — and what’s being done in Appalachia is a crime.

Jeff Biggers begins by tracing the electricity in his microphone to the human disasters of mountaintop removal: families evicted from their property, forced to move by poisoned water, and made sick by the effluents. He calls West Virginia “ground zero” in the biggest issues of our day: health care, taxation, and greenhouse gases. He challenges bloggers to frame these issues through the challenges of Appalachia.

Lorelei Scarbro is next. Coming from a family of miners and the widow of a black lung victim, she understands better than anyone what opposing coal means. Nevertheless, when Big Coal demolished a mountain in her backyard and poisoned the groundwater, this stay-at-home mom became an activist. Not just any kind of activist, either — she’s your chained-to-the-gate, often-arrested activist.

A theme emerges: 3,000,000 pounds of nitrate explosives are detonated into the atmosphere every day; silica fills the lungs of residents and Massey Energy dumps the soil and rock into streams, destroying the water table. The State of West Virginia is too corrupt to stop it. The local economy is entirely dependent on coal. Attempts to encourage responsible mining and alternative energy — wind farms — fall on deaf ears.

These mountains would have been parks in any other state, but an area the size of Delaware has been leveled in pursuit of “clean coal,” one of the most Orwellian terms in existence.

Stephanie Pistello is a citizen lobbyist who works at a Sysiphean task: opposing the wealthy corporate lobbyists for coal. “The politicians are beholden to them because they do not hear from us,” she says. Explaining that a conservative judge ruled against the industry in 2002 for violating the Clean Water Act of 1977, a Bush flunky — now in jail — changed the regulatory definition of coal waste to “fill material,” a category intended for constructing roads and bridges.

“We don’t live where they mine coal,” Scarbro interjects. “They mine coal where we live.”

Pistello describes astroturf pro-coal organizations showing up in Congress to fight H.R. 1310, the Appalachian Restoration Act, which would restore the original definition of “fill” with a bill consisting of a single sentence. So far, she has 155 co-sponsors.

There are more than 350 coal waste retention facilities in West Virginia containing billions of tons of sludge, many of them sitting right on top of hollow, mined-out rock. The potential for ever-greater disaster keeps growing.

Biggers describes how the negative consequences of coal strip mining have been known since the 1800s, but have never been turned into legislative action. Listening to this history, I realize it is no wonder anti-coal activists are screaming for attention. So would I.

Bob Kincaid is a ninth generation Appalachian. His ancestors arrived before anyone knew about the coal under the mountains of West Virginia; they are buried in mountain graveyards. The coal companies, he says, consider the remains of their ancestors as part of their waste, to push into the valleys with the sludge. The consequences of mountaintop removal, as he describes them, are little short of genocidal. The Appalachian people are being erased.

Complaining about the ubiquity of “Clean Coal” ads, Kincaid calls for his grandchildren — the eleventh generation of his family — to be protected. “Are those babies Americans too?” He asks. “I cannot say with any certainty that the United States of America thinks that they are.”

Well-water comes out of the tap looking like tomato soup and smelling of chemicals. “That is not what you do to an American,” he says. City water gets piped in, but the coal companies don’t pay for the water to replace the free water they poisoned. “Poisoning a well is one of the highest sins in scripture,” he says. Coal companies are violating the most basic moral codes and calling it progress.

Kincaid hates the label “environmentalist.” This, he says, is a human-rights issue. The people of Appalachia are being treated as not quite as human as the rest of us, and we do not have the luxury of time.

West Virginia, Biggers says, is a “sacrifice zone.” The people of West Virginia are victims of disregard; this wouldn’t be happening in, say, Massachusetts. Furthermore, coal is a diminishing source of energy: the industry wants to claim that half of America’s electricity comes from coal, but the real number is 42% and dropping. West Virginia coal makes up less than 5% of national coal energy production.

He also wants people to realize that the “mining jobs” canard is false: mountaintop removal is actually a way to use fewer people to mine coal. More than 73% of coal jobs have been lost since 1985 as the industry transitions away from deep mining.

Scarbro replies to a question about Senator Byrd by complaining that he does not see the consequences of mountaintop removal and refuses to sponsor a bill. Being a ranking Senator, he could easily lead a bill to passage, but will not do so.

On a projection screen, photos of mountaintop removal give me a fluttering stomach. Of all the panels I’ve been to at Netroots Nation, this has been the most affecting — and horrifying.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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  • rockync

    Traveling through coal country is a real eye opener. I'm glad you did this post because I don't think most Americans realize just how bad it STILL is in those areas.
    The people of Appalachia remain relatively isolated both by terrain and opportunity.
    Might be nice if some of the cable networks carried the story of the continued plight of coal mine workers instead of the mindless screed that usually passes for "news."

  • Anonymous

    Real clean coal technology might be useful here, not mining it but in-situ gasification combined with hydrogen fuel cells and carbon capture.

    This project has the backing of Friends Of The Earth in the UK. The companies doing this are looking for projects around the World, perhaps Appalachia could be the next to benefit?

    http://www.miningweekly.com/article/british-project-aims-to-use-energy-from-coal-to-produce-clean-electricity-2009-08-14

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/5966969/A-sustainable-future-for-coal.html

  • Matt Osborne

    Arguments over "clean coal" are a smokescreen for an industry that's incredibly dirty. Worse, they ignore the central problem in Appalachia, which is mono-economy. Just as gulf Arab countries export nothing but oil, West Virginia exports nothing but coal. Mono-economies follow a pattern of unsustainable development, poor education, environmental devastation, and political oppression. West Virginia is America's slice of third world hell in that sense.