No Top on Old Smokey

“Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River…”

When I was in high school in the garden state of New Jersey, it wasn’t exactly cool to be into John Denver. What you listened to behind closed doors was one thing, but out in public you didn’t make a point of letting anyone know about it. Kind of like mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is a jaw-dropping mining technique that few people know much about in this country, and the coal mining industry likes it that way. They don’t want you to know that they have blown up and leveled close to 500 mountains (an area the size of Delaware) in Appalachia, mountains older than the Himalayas – three hundred million years old, in fact. Well, they were, but now they’re dead and gone.   

Along with the mountains goes the extraordinary biodiversity found nowhere else in North America. According to the organization Appalachian Voices, “In the Great Smokey Mountains alone…there are over 65 species of mammals, 130 species of trees, and over 4,000 species of plants. Freshwater streams in the region contain more species of salamanders, crayfish, and freshwater mussels than anywhere else on the planet.”

That’s not all these bountiful streams contain. They also contain rock and debris that is dumped into them after the mountains are blown up. The EPA estimates that mountaintop removal “valley fills” are responsible for burying and polluting nearly 2,000 miles of vital Appalachian headwater streams, streams that are the headwaters for all of the eastern United States. Also dumped into the streams is the lovely, life-killing substance known as coal slurry.

Coal slurry is a toxic byproduct of separating coal from rock and is held in massive, notoriously leaky impoundments. If an impoundment fails, entire Appalachian communities can be wiped out in a matter of minutes – buried beneath a wave of this toxic sludge. Appalachian Voices reports that in 1972, an impoundment failed in West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek Hollow, killing 118 downstream residents and leaving over 4,000 homeless. In 2000, an impoundment failed in Martin County, Kentucky, spilling more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into tributaries of the Big Sandy River. The disaster—nearly 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill— killed virtually all aquatic life for 70 miles downstream. Funny how these stories never made it into mainstream media.

Also worth noting is the fact that Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia is located 400 yards downslope from Massey Energy’s enormous Shumate Impoundment, which holds 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge behind a 385-foot-high earthen dam, making it one of West Virginia’s largest impoundments. Think about that sludge looming over the lives of innocent children! The coal companies would prefer that you didn’t.

Coal mining companies decided to do mountaintop removal so they could get coal faster and “cheaper” by taking the miner out of mining. Robinhood in reverse – taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The coal-bearing counties of Appalachia are some of the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that some of the greatest wealth is being extracted from them.

So the mining industry has figured out a way to get rid of a majority of the miners and simultaneously destroy their lives and communities. How kind! In addition to the issues around coal sludge, the forceful blasting required by mountaintop removal often occurs close to residential dwellings at all times of the day. According to Appalachian Voices, “mining companies detonate approximately 2,500 tons of explosives daily, equal to a Hiroshima-strength atomic bomb on a weekly basis.” Communities are blanketed in dust and rocks of all sizes, known as flyrock, which can be the size of large boulders. Water wells and building foundations are commonly cracked as a result of the explosions, significantly depreciating the value of resident’s homes – oftentimes a family’s most substantial asset. Not to mention the multiple ways this mining practice contaminates their drinking water with dangerous levels of mercury and other heavy metals. Mining companies certainly don’t want to mention that.

I keep wondering, how is this possible? How is this legal? Seriously, how is this legal, to destroy three hundred million year old mountains, their ecosystems, and the people who live among them, all for 4.5% of America’s energy for electricity that could easily be produced through clean energy? Well, here are just a couple of glimpses into why this is allowed to happen:

1) The one attempt at a comprehensive analysis of mountaintop removal by government agencies was presented in a multi-agency Environmental Impact Statement that was completed in 2003. This effort was initiated in the late 90s, but the focus of the EIS was revised after the White House changed hands in 2001. According to the Charleston Gazette: “When it formally kicked off the project in February 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency said the goal was ‘to consider developing agency policies … to minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, the adverse environmental effects of mountaintop removal.’ By October 2001, then-Deputy Interior Secretary Steven J. Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist, had ordered the project refocused toward ‘centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting.’”

A former mining lobbyist making EPA mining policy. Imagine that.

2) The intention of the federal Clean Water Act is to eliminate additional water pollution. Yet, in 2002, the George W. Bush Administration reclassified mining waste as permissible “fill material” under section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), which created the loophole to allow the dumping of mountaintop removal waste into streams.

Mining waste reclassified as “permissible fill material?” Under the Clean Water Act? Am I missing something here?

I am amazed that mining companies get to “lease” mountains from land holding and mineral rights companies (who bought the rights to the land from poor Appalachia citizens at the start of the industrial revolution). They lease them and blow them up in one shot, gone forever, and all for some coal that will be burned up in no time. I’m bewildered by this, much like I imagine Native Americans were when white settlers landed on the North American continent and said they wanted to buy the land. Native Americans never thought they owned the land. Land was sacred to them, a gift from the Creator. They were inextricably linked to the natural world and had the utmost reverence for its power, beauty and bounty. Whether in these modern times we acknowledge it or not, our human psyche, our souls, our health and well-being are still inextricably linked to the natural world. What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves, and it looks like we’re blowing ourselves up, perhaps to be gone forever, too.

Though the people of Appalachia have lived in poor conditions for generations, they have always been fortified by the mountains surrounding them. They are deeply connected to this awesome landscape – a landscape that gives them a palpable, sacred sense of something greater than themselves. Now they live in the midst of war, a war waged on the natural world and on them. When you see footage of the mountains being blown up, the landscape looks no different than Afghanistan. Only the enemy is right here, in our own country, blowing life up with permission to do so. “Almost heaven” has become almost hell.

There are things happening in this modern world that I do not want my six-year-old daughter to know about. She is full of enthusiasm for life and believes in the good within the human heart. I don’t want to tell her that people are willing to blow up mountains with no regard for the rights of the natural world and human lives. I don’t want to tell her that there are children bathing in and drinking contaminated water and the government is doing little to stop it. I don’t want to tell her that when people are poor, they have less power and industry can reign over them, make money off of them and poison them. I want to tell her that American citizens found out about mountains being blown up, collectively raised their voices, and got the government to stop the mining companies from committing such atrocities. I want to show her that people have the power to right what is wrong.

If you need to see for yourself what’s going on, watch this video. As actor and activist Woody Harrelson poignantly states, “it’s just wrong, it’s so deeply wrong that we have to do something about it.” Contact iLoveMountains to find out what you can do to stop mountaintop removal (information under “Take Action”). It would be most helpful to send a hand written note to your representatives and senators opposing mountaintop removal and supporting the Clean Water Protection Act and Appalachian Restoration Act. A few sentences is all it takes. Let them know you know what’s happening and that it is not acceptable.

“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong…”

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One response to “No Top on Old Smokey

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