"Clean" coal's dirtiest secret

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.

Journalists survey the Samples Mine at Kayford Mountain, West VirginiaJournalists survey a mountaintop removal mine operation at Kayford Mountain, WV. Photo: Dennis Dimick

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.

Aerial shot of Samples Mine at Kayford Mountain
Aerial shot of Samples Mine at Kayford Mountain.
Photo: Theresa Burriss, via SouthWings Air

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

17 replies »

  1. While i’ll look forward to the subsequent portions of this series, i foresee myself getting more pissed off with each installment. These issues hit rather close to home, too. I live in a resource extraction area, though here we dig iron rather than coal. And a battle still rages over whether to permit sulfide mining in a nearby (and much used) river basin.

    By the way, Wendy, i wanted to commend you for your writing on religion in the Dobson thread, but it got far too hectic for such things. You bring a wonderful style, tone, and approach to the subject that displays rationality and deep understanding while maintaining your faith in a way that i’ve rarely seen.

  2. Most of the focus on coal has been on its use rather than the extraction. Thanks for reminding us that even if power companies are able to sequester 100% of the emissions from burning the coal, getting that coal out of the ground isn’t harmless.

  3. It upsets me now much gets distroyed just to remove the coal out, I was born and raised in West Virgnia and seeing that picture makes me want to cry, those moutains are apart of that state and to imagine that if it continues that one day we are going to see a flatten and barren state because we are letting people who only thought is about getting more money and not about energy and becomming less dependent of oil. Those mountians I fell in love with the beauty but if this nations lets people who only concern is greed and raping enviroment of everything it can in the name of those big bad oil companies they are against. I am for mining but not if it distroys everything to get it out of the ground.

  4. Lex, I really appreciate your comments (I am aiming hard for rationality and civility in an emotion-fraught sphere when it comes to any subject matter involving religion!). And I might add that I feel likewise about your always deeply thoughtful, well-reasoned responses on S&R, to such a multitude of subjects. Being somewhat new to the blog world, I’m not even sure if there’s etiquette governing this sort of thing, but personally, I would be interested to know more about you — I wonder what iron-extracting region of the country you come from, what your background and current work pursuits are, etc. I always look forward to reading your comments and would enjoy having a bit of context to put with the insightful words. If you are inclined to share more, you may do so privately by using the “contact” link at the top of the home page. Don’t feel obligated.

  5. And to think, if we’d not be having 4 and 5 and 6 and more kids per family, we’d not need nearly as much energy as we do.

    Overpopulation is driving the large scale destruction of our planet, and I don’t see how we can hope to survive if we don’t fix that underlying problem. But how does one go about encouraging people to not have so many kids?

    Seeing those pictures, knowing what kind of hell we’re raining down on our world, the place we need to protect if we’re to get food and water and shelter from her, makes me sick inside.

  6. The only way to see the massive scale of destruction that strip-mining causes is to see it first hand. Same as the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, all who saw it said you had to see it to understand the magnitude. No pictures, no video, no Google Earth flyover can accurately depict the enormity. It amazes me that it still goes on, there is no major public outcry. Most local people approve of the practice because without it, the economy in these areas would flop to third world status. The locals know it.

    One of my best friends is a blaster on a strip-mine. He drills holes, places dynamite down in them, and sets of the kaboom. Over and over and over again all day everyday he blasts mountain tops away to be pushed down in the valleys. “There’s money in those mountians” he says. Sad to say but money trumps.

  7. A citizens’ organization called Coal River Wind has a well-researched strategy to erect wind farms on mountaintops, providing electricity for thousands of homes and, for starters, 200 permanent jobs for the state. Tell WV Gov. Joe Manchin to intervene and stop Massey Coal Company from destroying any more mountains and streams. Let’s get on board to push this solution to dirty coal and dirty mining!

  8. It just goes to show how terrible these last eight years have been under this criminal Republican administration! We never had clear cutting and mountain top removal happening during the Clinton years and I’m certain Obama will put an end to this “clean coal” travesty once he’s in office and our team is in charge.

  9. Actually, John, mountaintop removal mining has been going on in Appalachia since the 1970s, including during the Clinton Administration, and under the current Democratic governors of West Virginia and Virginia. I’m not sure of the party of the governors of TN or KY w/o looking them up, but it’s been a practice that has continued regardless of the party in power. It’s been the coal industry that’s been in power. And if the stream buffer zone change is pushed through before Bush leaves office, that will only enhance the lock the industry has on the region. Unfortunately, any call for burning more coal, even if it’s burned as “clean” coal, will only increase demand for it via these methods. I’m hoping Obama will push ahead with green energy technologies as he’s promising.

  10. You mentioned civil disobedience, which is easy in this case…let’s not accept the benefit from doing this…let’s not use the electricity generated from the process we don’t like.

  11. “Sad to say but money trumps.”

    True. I’m not hearing much discussion here about how banning these mining practices will impact the cost of energy, particularly electricity. If you want more eco-friendly mining (and other resource gathering) practices, be prepared to pay for it. Oh yeah, also be prepared to subsidize the underachieving “less fortunate ™”.

  12. 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.