The Coal War on Appalachia: Went to the mountaintop but it wasn't there
HAZARD, Ky. – When I arrive at the tiny hangar in Hazard, Kentucky, pilot Susan Lapis is waiting. Lapis has flown in her immaculate Cessna from Bristol, Virginia, where she lives. She's dressed completely in black, a long black dress with black tights.
When I first met Lapis a few years ago, I called her an angel who watches over the world, because of her work with SouthWings, which ferries reporters and politicians above environmental destruction. I called Lapis a wind goddess, and she laughed.
Now, teasing, I call her a flying nun. "I'm wearing black for Kentucky," she says.
Lapis straps me in and points out headphones. "Truth is, this hardly needs any words," she says.
Soon we are rising above the soft slopes of the Appalachians, oldest mountains in the world, which are burning with fall colors, a wild spectacle.
But in seconds we are high enough to see a coal strip-mine, a massive gray gouge in the earth, raw and spreading. It covers miles. On peak after peak, trees have been removed, and mammoth machinery has begun to take down the slopes.
Mountaintop removal uses heavy machinery to remove summits of West Virginian, eastern Kentucky, and Tennessee in order to reach low-sulphur coal beneath. As much as 600 vertical feet may be removed, and a mine often encompasses multiple peaks and thousands of acres of broadleaf deciduous forest in between.
Lapis explains the process as we fly. First, forests atop the mountains are bulldozed. Often coal companies don't take the time to log the trees, but simply pile and burn them. Then miners drill deep into the mountain with augers and drop in explosives; earth-shaking blasts send up geysers of earth and rock. Draglines whose buckets can scoop 100,000 pounds at a time come and dump what's called "overburden," the rocks lying atop the coal, over the side of the mountain.
This method of strip-mining surfaced in the late 1980s but within a decade lawsuits had slowed the industry. Then, during his bid for office in 2000, George W. Bush promised to ease the bureaucratic process for the coal industry, which has raised $9 million for Republicans since 1998.
Mountaintop removal is a flagrant violation of the Clean Water Act in that the overburden fills the valleys, where streams run. Consequently, the federal government itself reports that over 700 miles of streams across the Appalachians have been buried, although environmental groups estimate the figure at over twice that.
One word allows the Bush administration to condone this abuse. In May 2002, in what's now called the "fill rule," the EPA officially reclassified coal debris from "waste" to "fill." Fill can be dumped into streams.
Coal waste is contaminated with sulfuric acid, selenium and other toxins.
In these last five years of the Bush presidency, coal companies have stepped up mountaintop removal. Last month the Bush administration further eased mining bureaucracy, nixing impact studies.
In West Virginia alone, 500 miles have been stripped for coal. An editorial in the Nov. 7, 2005 New York Times says, "Estimates are that by the end of the decade, an area larger than the state of Delaware will have been laid waste by dynamite and bulldozer."
"If you flew the Space Shuttle and looked down, Appalachia would look like someone with the measles," Lapis says.
The Appalachian Mountains that we of the United States consider beloved, important to our national identity, are being destroyed – not simply their culture, communities and economies, but the terrain itself. Entire landscapes are gone.
Lapis buzzes the plane around the mine, showing us where the next blast will be (dynamite set in mounds), a sludge pond, and piles of coal. Lapis has flown hundreds of reporters over these beheaded mountains for the group SouthWings, an environmental flying service based in Asheville whose motto is "I Had No Idea."
Below, the mine is huge, not big like a football field but big like a town. It goes on and on. She shows us "reclaimed" sections. They are bare as the Southwest desert, planted with the only thing that coal companies can get to grow in bare rock, an exotic lespedeza. The mountains are supposed to be returned to their original contours – instead, they're leveled. Where are our environmental regulators?
"We could fly for six hours and see mine after mine," Lapis says. "I'm outraged."
At first I do not realize that I am weeping, not until I feel tears rolling down my cheeks. In the distance I see more mines. I have fought clearcutting all my adult life, have seen the largest clearcut in the eastern United States from the air, thirty miles wide. Now here are clearcuts to the tenth power. Not only are the forests gone, and all they held, but so is the topsoil. So are the streams, the valleys.
Imagine leveling a mountain.
This flight was part of a tour of the coalfields. I had come at the invitation of Wendell Berry, essayist and thinker, and was among a band of writers urged to see the destruction for ourselves.
One evening on our tour we heard testimony from residents of eastern Kentucky, from former deep-shaft miners and from their families who live in the hollows below the mountaintop removals. They were despondent. "It's a pitiful situation, what we have to go through," said Burl Estep, of Harlan County.
The problems are dizzying in number. Blasting shakes homes off foundations, cracks sheetrock, tears roofs off houses, lowers a bathroom eight inches. It fills wells. Wellwater gets polluted, turns orange, smells. Blasts drive people from their beds. "Fly-rock" comes through roofs. Dust is thick along the roads, children have been killed by overweight coal trucks. Sludge ponds have spilled, with disastrous results. Flooding is a problem.
These Appalachian counties are among the poorest in the entire country. Jeff Chapman-Crane, artist, said, "We've got destruction coming down on our heads and nobody knows." Erica Urias of Island Creek, Pike County has black specks floating in her water. "How do you teach a little girl to brush her teeth if she can't use the sink?" she asked. Eugene Collins of Puncheon Creek said, "The ones that don't leave, I guess they're going to poison us."
One grandmother, Brenda Urias, was relentlessly eloquent. She returned home to rural Kentucky to raise her children. "Within a period of 10-15 years," she said, "a lot of what I loved about my creek has disappeared. The coal companies have rounded us up and they are taking our homes, our lives and our courage."
Remember these people, will you, when you think about coal-powered energy? Remember them when you think about Bush's energy policy.
And remember those mountains.
Writer and activist Janisse Ray is the author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, about the endangered longleaf pine ecosystem, and Wild Card Quilt. Her latest book, Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land, is the hopeful story of the purchase of Pinhook Swamp, which now legally joins Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia to Osceola National Forest in north Florida.
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