How mountaintop removal for coal could destroy Appalachia
By Emily Miles
The practice of mountaintop mining, also known as mountaintop removal, has been occurring for decades now, destroying the economies and environments of Appalachia and also the communities lying under the mountains. Washington has shown little response to the apparent consequences of the practice until recently, as a widespread grassroots movement is beginning to attract national media attention and affect federal legislation.
Mountaintop removal is a process of extracting coal by entirely stripping the top of a mountain using explosives. Up to 400 feet of soil, plants, wildlife and other material lying above coal is removed. After the coal is extracted, the removed material is put back onto the mountaintop in an attempt to reestablish the preexisting ecosystem. Excess rock and soil, often ridden with toxic byproducts, are moved into neighboring valleys.
According to the Rainforest Action Network, coal companies are using 2,500 tons of explosives each day—the equivalent of detonating one Hiroshima bomb a week.
Now, as November’s midterm elections have brought several pro-coal, pro-industry legislators—like West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin—into government, it is up to people like Jeremy Cherson to bring change.
Cherson, an environmental policy student at American University from Atlanta, Ga., learned of the practice during an advocacy week with Alliance for Appalachia.
“I can’t believe they chop off mountains, poison the water, poison the people that live there and keep them in a state of neocolonialism and domination,” Cherson said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
Then, he wrote a 40-page paper on the topic. Cherson intends to spread word of the “disgusting” practice to academics and environmentalists alike through an in-depth analysis of the connection between industry and society. His main aim is to draw attention to “the generational relationships and intricacies of the [Appalachian] society.”
“I believe we need to have a clear knowledge of where a community has been in order to help them get to where they need to be,” Cherson explained.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forests will be cleared for MTR sites by the year 2012. While sites range from Ohio to Virginia, the practice occurs most commonly in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, the top two coal-producing states in Appalachia. These two states each use approximately 1,000 tons of explosives per day for surface mining. At current rates, mountaintop removal in the United States will mine more than 1.4 million acres by the end of 2010, an amount of land area that exceeds the size of Delaware.
Mountaintop removal has been practiced since the 1960s. Increased demand for coal in the United States, sparked by the 1973 and 1979 petroleum crises, created incentives for a more economical form of coal mining than the traditional underground mining methods involving hundreds of workers. This triggered the first widespread use of MTR. Its prevalence expanded further in the 1990s to retrieve relatively cleaner-burning, low-sulfur coal, which met the U.S. Clean Air Act’s tightened emissions limits on high-sulfur coal processing.
This practice has cut the coal miners’ work force by nearly two-thirds, leading to an upheaval of the economic structure in Appalachian communities.
In the heart of Appalachia, where the coal industry wields enormous power over government and public opinion, lifelong resident Maria Gunnoe fights against environmentally-devastating mountaintop removal mining and valley fill operations.
In a speech and MTR protest in Washington, D.C., called Appalachia Rising, Gunnoe made a statement of success.
“We’re no longer industry victims; we’re industry survivors,” Gunnoe said.
Her advocacy has led to the closure of mines in the region and stricter regulations for the industry.Her fight to protect the mountains of Appalachia will continue, as does the United States’ dependence on energy.
Just under half of the electricity generated in the United States is produced by coal-fired power plants. MTR accounted for less than 5 percent of U.S. coal production as of 2001. In some regions, however, the percentage is higher—for example, MTR provided 30 percent of the coal mined in West Virginia in 2006.
Historically, the most common method of coal acquisition in the United States was underground mining, which is very labor-intensive. In MTR, through the use of explosives and large machinery, more than two and a half times as much coal can be extracted per worker per hour than in traditional underground mines, thus greatly reducing the need for workers.
In Kentucky, for example, the number of workers declined more than 60 percent from 1979 to 2006, from 47,190 to 17,959 workers, respectively. In between the years of 1990 and 1997, the coal industry lost approximately 10,000 jobs, as more mechanized underground mining methods became more widely used. The coal industry continues to affirm that surface mining techniques, such as mountaintop removal, are safer for workers than sending miners underground.
Proponents argue that in certain geologic areas, MTR and similar forms of surface mining allow the only access to thin seams of coal that traditional underground mining would not be able to access. Statistically speaking, it has become clear to the industry that MTR is currently the most cost-effective method available for extracting coal.
However, the environmental consequences include contamination of waterways and public reservoirs with carcinogenic heavy metals. Following the intense degradation of water supplies, the central Appalachians are at the top of the list of cancer deaths per capita for the nation.
For the first time in decades, significant legislative progress has been made toward ending mountaintop removal. Soon after coming into office in 2009, the Obama administration adopted stricter regulations on the practice. The Environmental Protection Agency made it clear that this method created problems, and in July of 2009, the late Robert F. Kennedy Jr. publically condemned the practice in a Washington Post opinion piece, coining the phrase “Appalachian apocalypse.”
Yet, on Oct. 6, legislative patterns in D.C. were reversed. The state of West Virginia sued two federal agencies, seeking not to protect their state, but to reverse regulations set in place to do so. Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, condemned what he called the Obama administration’s “attempts to destroy our coal industry and way of life in West Virginia.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Cherson and other activists decided to join the national protest against MTR in September by participating in Appalachia Rising.
Appalachia Rising, an event in Washington, D.C., was a national response to the poisoning of America’s water supply and the destruction of Appalachia’s mountains, head water source streams and communities through mountaintop removal coal mining. It follows a long history of social action for a just and sustainable Appalachia, but this was the first to bring such effort to D.C.
“It feels great to be out here with so many strong people all fighting the same fight,” Cherson said.
The program provided an opportunity to build or join the movement for justice in Appalachia through strategy discussions, workshops, cultural events and sharing knowledge across regional and generational lines.
Appalachia Rising was a coalition of nearly 100 grassroots national environment groups, social justice organizations and coalfield residents. The coalition strives to call for the abolition of mountaintop removal coal mining and demand that America’s water be protected from all forms of surface mining.
Organizers asked for a donation of $50 for the entire event, but both food and housing were provided free of cost. Supporters traveled from as far as California to join the movement. Free housing was provided at several churches and community centers in the D.C. area. Local people also volunteered their homes to house visiting supporters.
All this support resulted in nearly 3,000 protesters marching on Washington, making stops at the EPA, PNC Bank (the largest monetary contributor to strip mining coal companies) and the White House. One hundred and fourteen protesters were arrested.
Declaring the end of MTR with chants demanding, “Up with the mountains, down with the mountain top removal,” protesters gained national attention. For the first time in history, the United States’ focus was turned toward the plight of Appalachians living with MTR.
In a statement made by Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune on the day of Appalachia Rising, he claimed, “It’s up to Obama’s EPA to put a halt to any further blasting in Appalachia.”
On Oct. 15, the EPA took the first steps. Shawn Garvin, the agency’s Region 3 administrator, along with Lisa Jackson, recommended the withdrawal of the mining permit for America’s largest proposed mountaintop removal coal mine site, the Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W. Va.
For now, change is far off in the horizon. But with only six permits currently denied by the EPA and more than 500 mountains already destroyed, the horizon itself will be changed by the time any regulations are in place.
Jeremy Cherson is still working to spread the word in Washington. Maria Gunnoe is still working to close mines in West Virginia. And Appalachia is still waiting for the explosions to stop, the water to clear and the mountains to return to their natural state. But even as the line between industry and government blurs, the power of community is only gaining in strength.
Emily Miles is a sophomore journalism major who always sings “Climb Every Mountain.” E-mail her at [email protected]