Part I: An Ugly Overview
A few days ago I stood on the rim of what was once Kayford Mountain in southern West Virginia. Razed, stripped and gutted, the mountain is now a 7,500-acre blast zone devoid of vegetation, a massive gray scar that looks like the surface of the moon.
Some 470 mountaintops in central Appalachia look like Kayford.Once blanketed in hardwood forest, their ancient slopes laced with clear streams and inhabited by more species than any place outside the tropics, nearly a million acres of these mountains have become casualties of America’s addiction to cheap energy.
The coal industry has been using mountaintop removal, a radical form of strip-mining, since the 1970s. By clear-cutting the forest and blasting away the rock beneath, mining companies are able to recover shallow seams of coal and expend far less on labor than conventional mining methods involve. The millions of tons of debris left over after the coal is extracted are dumped into adjacent valleys, obliterating 1,200 streams to date and polluting hundreds more. Residents of these remote mountain hollers have been displaced by explosions, dust, flooding and intimidation. As their homes are destroyed, their unique culture and traditions, so closely tied to place, are also endangered.
I traveled with a busload of reporters on a field trip organized by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) last week to get a close-up look at mountaintop removal mining, and to hear from residents, activists and industry personnel in the process. This series unveils what we learned, and with it, a moral challenge to reject the notion that coal taken via such means can ever be “clean,” regardless of how it is burned.
Most Americans don’t know about this form of environmental destruction that author Wendell Berry has called “the ecological equivalent of genocide.” Berry, 74, a resident of rural eastern Kentucky where mountaintop removal has been practiced since the 1970s, spoke Sunday at the SEJ annual meeting in Roanoke, Va., suggesting that civil disobedience may be the only means left to effectively resist this “permanent damage to the world.” The political process hasn’t worked, since state governments in coal country, like Kentucky’s, are “wholly owned subsidiaries of the coal industry,” Berry said.
And if the Bush Administration has its way, mountaintop removal mining will become even more widespread. Earlier this month the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) moved forward on a proposed change to the Stream Buffer Zone rule that would overturn the restriction in place since 1983 that forbids mining impacts within 100 feet of a stream. The proposal has now gone to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval, before being published into law. While the existing buffer zone rule has been widely disregarded by mining companies, and legal follow-up is rare or inconsequential, a change in the ruling would effectively encourage as rampant practice what is now done subversively. Comments to the EPA Administrator are being taken through Nov. 23.
Coming up in this series:
Part II: Almost heaven level: the mechanics of moving mountains
Part III: The poor are always downstream
Part IV: Seven simple steps to save Appalachia