Hugh explosions. Rock and debris flying into the air. Mountains blasted to smithereens by explosives 100 times more powerful than those that blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. The land looks like a another planet. No trees, no plants, no animals. A barren moonscape.
These are the shocking images I saw in Jeff Barrie’s documentary, "Kilowatt Ours." I could not get the images out of my mind. So I sat down and wrote the song, “Don’t Blow Up the Mountain.” Ron Ault put together a video (above) and he he plays clawhammer banjo on the song).
Although I don’t live in Appalachia (I live in Nashville), I have a great love for the culture of the mountains because I play old time fiddle. I love the rollicking beat and the sound of a bunch of fiddles and banjos all playing the melody together.
When folks are forced off the mountains, when communities are figuratively and literally torn apart, who is going to teach the next generation these wonderful old fiddle tunes that have been around for hundreds of years?
Those of us who don’t live in Appalachia may be not be aware of the destruction caused by Mountain Top Removal (MTR). According to the non profit Appalachian Voices, 450 mountains have been destroyed to date. United Mountain Defense calls this ecocide, the killing of the environment. Mountaintop removal has been dubbed strip mining on steroids.
Here are the steps taken by the coal companies to access the thin layers of valuable low sulfur coal that lie in the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau and southern Appalachia.
First, the forests are clear cut. Trees are cut down and the topsoil is carted away along with vegetation. Wildlife habitat is destroyed. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 2,200 miles of Appalachian forest will be cleared by 2012.
Next, the coal companies blast off the mountaintop. The strength of the explosions can cause nearby house foundations to crack. The soil and rock left behind is often dumped in valleys below. Coal companies have buried over 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams.
Millions of gallons of waste from coal processing, called sludge or slurry, are usually stored in open pools. One of the worst ecological disasters in eastern United States occurred on October 11, 2000, when a coal sludge impoundment in Kentucky’s Martin County broke through an underground mine below and poured 306 million gallons down the Tug Fork River. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of waterways, contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents, and killed all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek. Footage of this disaster can been seen in our video.
The companies then bring in heavy machinery to get at the coal. As tall as a 20 story building and weighing up to 8 million pounds with a base as big as a gymnasium, these machines make it possible for the coal companies to hire fewer workers than in traditional underground mining. In MTR more than two and half times as much coal can be extracted per hour than in underground mines. The coal industry lost about 10,000 jobs from 1990 to 1997.
The counties that host MTR are often the poorest in Appalachia; 37% of the residents of McDowell County, West Virginia, which produces the most coal in the state, live in poverty.
"Mountaintop removal mining is a callous, irresponsible, egregious method of mining coal,” says Janice A. Nease, Executive Director of the Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia. “It creates false prosperity — enriching the few at a great cost to large areas of Appalachian people and the environment. Southern West Virginia has become an energy sacrifice zone in the nation's quest for cheap energy. This injustice cannot be allowed to continue."
Nell Levin is a songwriter/musician/writer and the Coordinator of Tennessee Alliance for Progress , a think and act tank whose motto is "We’re All In This Together."