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Vanishing Mountains

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Issue: 56 Section: Accounts Geography: USA West Virginia Topics: Mining

November 7, 2008

Vanishing Mountains

Coal mining in Appalachia

by Dana Kuhnline

Eight hundred thousand acres of land have been destroyed by mountaintop coal removal in Appalachia, and hundreds of thousands more are slated for the same process. Photo: Vivian Stockman

CHARLESTON, WV, USA–"I say to you, what do you hold so precious in your own circle of life that you don't have a price on it? What would it be? For me, it's my home. For me, it's Appalachia. For me, it's the mountains. For me, it's a whole way of life that they're wiping out here, and nobody seems to care."

This is what Larry Gibson has been telling people who make the pilgrimage to his home on Kayford Mountain, outside of Charleston, West Virginia. A not-to-be-missed destination for any tourists who want their hearts broken, Kayford is an island of green in a 12,000 acre wasteland of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Mountaintop removal coal mining is a type of mining particular to Appalachia. The coal lies in thin horizontal seams, stacked up like the frosting in a layer cake. In the past, miners tunneled through the side of the mountain to scoop out the frosting, but current (and cheaper) practices allow giant machines to destroy the entire cake. Coal companies use diesel fuel and fertilizer to explode up to 800 feet of mountain to scoop out the coal. Afterward, some of the rubble is piled back where the mountain used to be, and some of it is piled into nearby valleys, creating valley fills.

Eight hundred thousand acres of land have been destroyed in this way in Appalachia, and hundreds of thousands more are slated for the same process. The valley fills and loosened rock leach out heavy metals like selenium. According to fisheries biologist A. Dennis Lemly, these selenium discharges have affected fish in Mud River, West Virginia; fish have been found with spiral spines and two eyes on the same side of their heads.

Coal processing leaves billions of gallons of toxic waste - called sludge - behind, a witch's brew of mercury, diesel from the explosives, and dozens of other deadly chemicals which are placed into unlined earthen structures called slurry dams or injected underground, often into abandoned underground coal mines. These toxins are free to seep into the ground water of nearby communities.

One of these communities is Prenter, West Virginia, where a group of residents have started to organize to fight for clean water. According to a casual health survey they undertook, a staggering 97 per cent of Prenter residents have gallbladder disease. Brain tumours, thyroid cancer, and skin conditions are also common. In many homes in Prenter, the water leaves the faucet black or orange, and vegetables rot in the garden. A short video on YouTube features Prenter bathtub water tarnishing a penny. Citizens in Prenter have been lobbying state and national officials for nearly a year to get help, but officials say they can’t do anything – because they can’t confirm coal has anything to do with the problems the community is facing.

However, in a similar community in Mingo County, also located near known slurry injection sites, residents are also suffering from rare disease patterns. Ben Stout, an aquatic biologist at West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University, has discovererd the same chemicals found in coal slurry – including aluminum, arsenic, beryllium, and sulfuric acid - at rates thousands of times the legal limit in well water.

I learned about mountaintop removal coal mining in 2005, when I moved to West Virginia to work on oral history and arts preservation. I unknowingly rented a house next to the state's largest mountaintop removal coal mining site, Hobet 21. In my first week, I was hiking behind my new house when suddenly the mountain stopped. I was at the edge of a cliff, and as far as I could see was grey rubble. A crane 13 stories tall (nicknamed Big John) scooped away loose rock to reveal a flat black surface.

People I interviewed about the mine always said they hated it, but what could they do? This is one of the poorest areas in West Virginia, which in 2004 was ranked the 48th poorest state in the US, and money is money. The economy of West Virginia is built on coal. According to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, coal mining in West Virginia provides about 20,000 jobs in coal production, with 40,000 jobs total if you count jobs indirectly created by the mining industry. In the 1970s, before strip mining became prevalent, there were over 120,000 mining jobs in West Virginia. Currently, direct and indirect coal mining jobs make up about five per cent of the labour force of West Virginia, which produces 15 per cent of coal in the US, and makes up 50 per cent of the US' coal exports. Coal mining is one of few industries that exists here.

Mountaintop removal coal mining could never happen in a rich community. For example, in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, a wealthy county with little coal mining history only a few hours away, members of the second home community vehemently fought a proposed wind farm on their mountains because of the damage to their viewshed and second home market. The same government officials that have refused to help Prenter citizens get clean water have supported the Greenbrier citizens in their fight to keep their view clear of unsightly windmills.

Environmentalists working on this issue quickly realize that a few laws are not going to fix this problem. The mono-economy of Appalachia needs to be diversified, and the value system that tells us what is worth money and what is not needs a second look.

Coal is profitable because it externalizes the costs of extraction and burning onto the surrounding communities and the government. Coal trucks tear up area roads; abusive employee treatment leads to disabled workers; bad water and air pollution lead to sickness. These are only a few of the costs government and communities must absorb in addition to the tax cuts and subsidies already provided to big coal. Even if we could put a price tag on the nearly 500 mountains that have been destroyed in Appalachia so far, the environmental costs alone would make the price of mountaintop removal coal too high.

“The coal company always talks about jobs - there are no jobs on a dead planet,” Judy Bonds, the Goldman Award-winning legend with Coal River Mountain Watch mining often says.

“I know that our community survived before there was electricity,” adds Virginia activist Kathy Selvage of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, “But I don’t think we can survive without clean water, or air to breathe.”

About 12 per cent of total energy consumption in Canada comes from coal (it's about 50 per cent in the US), and about 40 per cent of the coal Ontario Power Generation uses is Appalachian coal. The fact is, we live in a world where blow drying your hair in Canada blows up family cemeteries and pristine streams in Appalachia. Deforestation and coal processing in Appalachia is increasing the effects of global warming in Canada.

In the words of English journalist and activist George Monbiot, “Everything I have fought for and that all campaigners for social justice have ever fought for - food, clean water, shelter, security - is jeopardized by climate change.”

Appalachian author Ann Pancake has said, "What we are doing to this land is not only murder; it is suicide."

“Something must be done. You have got to do something,” Larry Gibson tells his visitors.

The Coal River Wind Project is trying to do something. The group is attempting to block a 6,600 acre mountaintop removal permit by proposing 440 megawatts of industrial scale wind on the mountain instead.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have publicly stated their opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining, yet both continue to support 'clean coal.’ The 'clean' in 'clean coal' refers to carbon sequestration at power plants and not to the extraction process. Thus, 'clean coal' can still come from the ripped off mountain tops in Appalachia.

Neither candidate has expressed support for the Clean Water Protection Act, which would curtail the use of most valley fills in Appalachia. This bill currently has 152 co-sponsors in the House but has not yet been introduced in the Senate.

Dana Kuhnline lives in West Virginia where she works for The Alliance for Appalachia, a coalition of 13 non-profits with the goal of ending mountaintop removal and creating a just sustainable Appalachia.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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