How Do You Kill a Mountain?

A compendium of photographs, facts, commentary, and history makes the case for abolishing mountain-top-removal mining of coal.

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Book review
Plundering Apalachia
Tom Butler and George Wuerthner, eds.
208 pp., Earth Aware Editions, 2009, $49.95

David Brower, founder and first executive director of the Sierra Club, is frequently credited with inventing what we now call the coffee table book: a large format hardcover collection of page-spanning photographs and blocks of text that illuminate the images.  The first such book, This is the American Earth, published in 1960 and with photographs by Ansel Adams and other nature photographers, served to promote a Sierra Club cause and move environmental issues into the national consciousness. 

So it seems fitting that the editors of Plundering Appalachia chose this medium to explain in dramatic fashion the tragedy of mountain top removal mining that is ravaging Central Appalachia.  The term “coffee table book” is often used pejoratively, suggesting a superficial approach to a subject.  Not so with this work. Stunningly brutal photographs by two dozen gifted photographers are brought together with searing testimony by residents from impacted communities and persuasive essays from regional and national writers, academics, and environmentalists to argue for the abolition of this violent method of mining. Together, the photographs and essays create an effective synergy, forcing the reader to connect the flick of a light switch with exploding mountains.

Because most photos in the book span two pages (12.5”x 21”), the eye must move deliberately about. It can’t encompass such images in a glance — nor can the intellect or heart, so incomprehensible is the destruction.

Daniel Shea/published with
permission, Plundering Appalachia (2009) © Earth Aware Editions™
Filling the valley, Raleigh County, West Virginia

Is there anything in the nation that rivals the sheer scale of environmental devastation caused by mountaintop removal in the coal producing areas of Appalachia?   A satellite-based map of 58 counties in West Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee shows more than 800,000 acres of large-scale surface mining between 1976 and 2005 alone. That figure is now certain to exceed one million acres.  Over 470 mountain tops in the 450 million year old Appalachian range have been eradicated in these four states. Keep in mind that the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act has purportedly been regulating the environmental impact of surface mining since 1977. 

The first step in mountain top removal mining is either to clear cut the forest cover or scrape it into a pile and burn it.  A pad is leveled and a large drilling rig digs holes where a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil are poured.  When the charge is set off, an explosion up to 100 times as strong as the one used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Oklahoma federal building blasts up to 800 feet off the mountain top.  The explosions sometimes crack the foundations of houses and wells in the valley below, and “fly rock” from the explosions has been known to damage homes and their occupants in the valleys. The soil is then either hauled away by huge trucks or pushed over into adjacent valleys.  It is estimated that between 15-20 tons of mountain soil and rock are removed for every ton of coal excavated. 

J. Henry Fair/published with permission, Plundering Appalachia (2009) © Earth Aware Editions™
Devouring Kayford Mountain — a mountaintop-removal-mining site in southern West Virginia.

Next draglines that can weigh as much as 8 million pounds and be as tall as a 20 story building dig into the rock to expose the coal. The coal is then scooped out while millions of tons of “overburden” – the part of the mountain with no economic value to the coal company – are dumped into the valleys creating “valley fills.” With these methods, coal companies have degraded or completely buried over 1,900 miles of Appalachian headwater streams.  These mine waste valley fills are now the largest earthen structures in North America.

The authors of Plundering Appalachia, while horrified by the practice and consequences of mountain top removal, make it clear that mountain top removal is perhaps the most outrageous symbol of a larger, systemic problem of our current industrial growth economy: seeking short term profits at the expense of communities in their way, natural beauty and biodiversity.  By connecting the oversized photographs to abundant statistics and compelling prose, they describe coal’s cradle-to-grave toxic legacy

Mark Schmerling/published with permission, Plundering Appalachia (2009) © Earth Aware Editions™
Acid runoff pools below the mine site at Kayford Mountain, about 35 miles southeast of Charleston, West Virginia.

Mountain top removal coal mining, rather than being the end of the pollution cycle, is only the beginning.  Coal washing turns water into sludge contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals. This liquid waste is often contained behind earthen dams in huge sludge ponds.

Plundering Appalachia describes three tragedies involving sludge (also called slurry) impoundments.  One of these ponds, operated by Pittston Coal, broke on February 26th, 1972 above the community of Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia. Over 132 million gallons of black wastewater poured into the valley killing 125 people, injuring 1100 and leaving 4000 homeless. The coal company called it an “act of God,” presumably because heavy rain had caused the pond to fill and breach the dam. 

Shortly after midnight on October 11, 2000, the bottom of a coal sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy in Martin County, Kentucky, broke into an abandoned underground mine below, sending an estimated 306 million gallons of sludge down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. The spill was over five feet deep in places and contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents. Mercury, lead, arsenic, copper and chromium were found in the sludge. 

On December 22, 2008 shortly before 1 a.m., an 84-acre TVA coal ash impoundment at Kingston, Tennessee — 40 miles west of Knoxville — spilled 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry into the Emory River and onto 300 acres of surrounding land.  This spill, the largest release of fly ash in U.S. history, was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

It’s not only these large, periodic catastrophes that threaten the drinking and recreational water of the region.  Because many Appalachians depend on surface and well water, all manner of water quality violations present potential hazards.  In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency slapped Massey Energy, which operates dozens of underground and surface mines across the region, with the largest civil penalty ever assessed for Clean Water Act permit violations.  Massey agreed to pay $20 million for more than 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act. 


Plundering Appalachia also warns that the rest of us can’t breathe easily either – literally. Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, writes that air pollution from power plants has been estimated to cause some 22,000 premature deaths nationwide and more than 550,000 asthma attacks.   Coal-fired plants – there are 600 of them –produce about half of our nation’s electricity, emit 59% of the total U. S. sulfur dioxide pollution and are the largest source of mercury pollution.  Coal emissions account for 40% of CO2 emissions in the U.S., a nation that produces 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases.  It’s not surprising, then, to read that coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of global warming pollution in the nation.

But what about our energy requirements and the badly needed jobs that coal provides in these impoverished communities?  Yes, mountain top removal mining provides a few comparatively high paying jobs, but no one seriously sees mountain removal as a regional employment strategy despite the industry’s constant trumpeting of the job message.  In fact, between 1923 and 2008 there was an almost 90% decrease in the number of coal miners in the U.S. while production more than doubled.  That huge disparity is a result of a shift toward mechanization and surface mining which, as the locals say, “takes the miner out of mining”.

Coal does provide cheap electricity to run the nation but only because the social, environmental and public health costs associated with the mining, processing and burning of coal are not reflected in our electric bills.  It is estimated that coal from mountaintop removal provides only 4% of our electricity, an amount that editor Tom Butler suggests could be replaced with small gains in energy efficiency and conservation. Appalachia has been a zone of national sacrifice fueling prosperity in the rest of the nation; many scholars and activists within and without the region recognized this long before the publication of Plundering Appalachia

T. Paige Dalporto/published with permission, Plundering Appalachia (2009) © Earth Aware Editions™
In July 2001, runoff from denuded mountains flooded Charlton Heights in Fayette County, West Virginia.

We have a Clean Water Act, and the Surface Mining Control and
Reclamation Act has regulated the environmental impact of surface
mining for over 30 years. So how is it possible that mountains are being blown to smithereens and “spoil’ (earth and rock) is being dumped into adjacent valleys, even though the law requires the land be restored to its original contour?  The answer to that question may be the most disturbing part of this book because it exposes the subversion of our democracy and reminds us of the cozy relationships among regulators and elected officials that come with concentrated wealth and power. 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. explains it this way in his pointed contribution to Plundering Appalachia

“It’s all illegal.  You cannot dump rock, debris, and rubble into a waterway without a Clean Water Act permit.  So environmental lawyer Joe Lovett sued the industry and prevailed before a conservative federal judge in West Virginia, the late Charles Hayden.  Hayden agreed that the entire racket was unlawful and enjoined all mountaintop mining.

After the judicial decision, Peabody Coal and Massey Energy, two of the nation’s biggest coal companies, met with Bush administration officials who obligingly overturned thirty years of statutory interpretation by changing the meaning of one word of the Clean Water Act.  Their new definition of the word “fill” effectively overruled Judge Hayden’s decision, making it legal to dump rock, rubble, construction debris, and other solid waste into any American waterway without a Clean Water Act permit.  All they need today is a rubberstamp permit form the Army Corps of Engineers.”  

The editors of Plundering Appalachia hope that this explanation and much more in the book will make an impression on the American people and stir them to join the movement to stop the plunder. In fact, one of their stated purposes is to create a “useful tool for activists, conservation groups, grantmakers and public officials.”   Thus they include an essay by Jerry Hardt, communications director for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, on building a movement to end mountain top removal.  A final section in the book lists 28 organizations and resources that provide opportunities for readers to learn about the issue and become involved in strategies for change.

Antonio Vizcaino/published with permission, Plundering Appalachia (2009) © Earth Aware Editions™
Appalachia unmined: beauty is just part of what’s at stake.
Some of these resources use technology creatively to show residents around the nation their personal connection to mountain top removal.  A tool on iLoveMountains.org allows anyone in the country to enter their zip code and see the direct links between mountaintop removal mines and utilities providing electricity to their homes.  Using Google Earth and Google Maps anyone can virtually fly over the coalfields of Central Appalachia and see for themselves the mountains and communities that have been sacrificed for their cheap electricity.

Okay, this isn’t the coffee table book that your Aunt Agnes may proudly display –actually she might. People who want to learn about the toxic legacy of coal and those who are already looking to phase out carbon emissions will want to keep a copy out to generate conversation.  Publication comes at an opportune time.  A paper published in the current edition (January 8, 2010) of Science, the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,  considered one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, intensifies arguments for abolition. 

“Mountaintop Mining Consequences” authored by 12 prominent hydrologists, ecologists and engineers calls for mountain top removal to be halted immediately because of growing evidence of its environmental and health threats.  This comes at a tough time for President Obama. He was elected with the help of environmentalists and has pledged to take seriously scientific expertise on the issue of mountain top mining but also needs support from pro-coal Congressional representatives for his broader policy agenda. 

To date environmentalists seem confused about how the Obama administration is making decisions related to surface mine permitting.  Environmentalists were hopeful when the EPA announced in September that it had identified 79 proposed surface coal-mining projects in Appalachian states for further detailed reviews of their pending permits.  EPA announced that they were taking “unprecedented steps” to reduce the impacts of mountain top removal but emphasized that “cultural, aesthetic and human health impacts that may be associated with this mining technique are not part of the scope of this current assessment.”   On January 5 some of those hopes were dashed when the EPA formally announced a deal that will allow a mountain top operation to mine 600 additional acres in southern West Virginia, adding to the already 25-square-mile mine site. 

Plundering Appalachia may be an effective tool for building popular support, but its proponents, even with the remarkable report in Science, still have to deal with political complexities that may play a role equally as influential as science.

 

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