The timeworn mountains of the eastern United States, mountains older than the Himalayas, are disappearing.
The life that abounds on, around, and within these mountains is vanishing at a seemingly inexorable rate. For roughly 140 years, the summits of Appalachia have been violently exploited - entire mountaintops defoliated; ammonium nitrate detonating entire peaks into dust and rubble; the detritus of those peaks, imprudently discarded down hillsides, smothering headwaters and streams, choking the life out of macroinvertebrates, fish, and riparian growth respectively. All of this, for coal.
On a clear crisp morning, one can watch the mist lift over the crests of Appalachia, revealing clear cuts wrapping around the flanks of mountains, unveiling razed summits devoid of forest cover. It's a sore sight for eyes, and a sore subject for myriad activists crusading against Big Coal.
Judy Bonds is one such activist. Co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) and one of the leading voices confronting the coal industry, she has been fighting for justice in the coalfields of Appalachia since 1998. A coal miner's daughter and granddaughter, loving mother and grandparent, and recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003, Judy Bonds got involved in activism after watching her grandson try to play in a stream littered with the corpses of dead fish. The boy also suffered from asthma which improved as soon as the family moved away from the coal dust-filled air of the mining district.
‘If kids and grandkids can't play in streams, then it's time to do something,' she says. ‘We're supposed to protect our children.'
Slicing the top off
In 1977, the US Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed to ensure regulation over the environmental effects of coal mining. Section 515(c)(1) allowed for coal mining operations to practice mountaintop removal (MTR). The process is claimed to be more efficient than other methods of coal mining due to the fact that coal seams run horizontally within terrain.
Half of the US's electricity comes from subsidized coal, pumping some 2.3 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Central Appalachia is the country's top coal supplier in the country, next to Wyoming's Powder Basin, and has been inundated with excavation expansion, mostly (70 per cent) in the form of strip mining. Mining giant Arch Coal alone digs up 100 million tons of coal per year, roughly half of which comes via MTR in the Appalachian region.
Change is not likely to be rapid. While on the campaign trail, the Obama team received $240,000 from the ‘clean coal' lobby, and President Obama appears supportive of the industry. Speaking to a rally in Virginia he said:
‘We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years; you can't tell me we can't figure out how to burn coal that we mine...in the United States of American and make it work.'
This doesn't wash with Bonds: ‘As far as the President's policies go, Obama is better than Bush, but that isn't good enough. If Obama looks hard enough into his heart he'll abolish mountaintop removal and strip mining. If he doesn't, then he's justifying and validating Bush's previous policies, and that isn't any better than the past eight years.'
What goes up...
When the top of a mountain is removed, the debris is scattered into valleys below. Between 1985 and 2001, there have been 6,700 of what the industry calls ‘valley-fills'. That equates to 84,000 acres of forest and watershed destroyed and/or defiled from sediment dumping.
Valley-fills can create artificial floodplains, leading to flooding in an area that wasn't naturally subjected to flooding in the past. This, combined with the inevitable leaching of heavy metals from the mine sites, leads to a dying ecology and toxic landbase. If there is a spill or flood, cleanup money often comes from the public purse.
Claims of health problems abound. Parents talk of children suffering from nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. The long-term effects can be terminal, some include: cancers of the digestive tract, bone damage, and liver failure. To paraphrase author and professor at the University of Kentucky, Erik Reese, writing in Orion magazine, the above symptoms are common ailments attributed to the exposure of heavy metals found in leachate befouling the region.
Bonds points to the now accepted risk posed by coal-ash bins, which hold the thick slurry left over from the coal ‘washing' process, in which water and chemicals are used to produce a product ready for use in power stations. The threat posed by the bins was highlighted in December 2008, when a similar structure at the Kingston coal power stations in Roane County, Tennessee burst and released 4.2 million cubic metres of slurry over nearby homes and land. Progress towards abolishing them, however, is slow.
‘The problem with coal-mining laws is that they only get passed after folks have died from the effects of mining,' she says. ‘Even then, the laws are put in place but never enforced.'
The ecological effects of MTR are significant. Currently, two thirds of the songbirds endemic to Kentucky's Cumberland Plateau are in decline - thought to be a result of the continued use of explosives in the mining process. Estimates suggest that since the early 1970s, 320,000 acres of Kentucky, 380,000 acres of West Virginia and 90,000 acres of Virginia have been strip-mined for coal, much of it forests and watersheds.
Bonds has watched as the region's wildlife has gone into decline:
‘Leaf shredders and mayflies, which are important in maintaining the health of the river ecology, are disappearing quickly. The wild boar is becoming endangered, and many of the tropical birds that arrive in the area to breed in the forest chain are disappearing as well.
‘This area boasts the world's most diverse deciduous forests - only the Amazon has a larger variety of tree species. When you destroy mountains you destroy forests. These mountains are important to the northeast. We need to stop valuing our forests and mountains in terms of dollars. A standing tree is worth more than one that has been felled to the ground.'
A divided community
But the effects of MTR don't end with pollution and environmental degradation. There is a human price too.
‘The coal industry has turned Appalachia into a third-world banana republic,' Bonds sighs. ‘The leadership here has sided with coal; most have a relative in the coal industry. This divides the community greatly, like a civil war almost - we get lots of threats and intimidation. It's basically a warzone, there are the threats and intimidation, and then the three million pounds of explosives used to blow up the mountains.'
She explains that Coal River Mountain Watch recently produced a study examining the potential for wind power on one of the region's mountains. The report concluded that a wind farm would not only provide clean energy, but also jobs as well. In response, Bonds says, the state governor drew up an energy portfolio ‘stringently reliant upon coal'.
Local media has not been supportive.
‘In coal-producing states, Big Coal controls the media - at least 95 per cent of it,' Bonds claims. ‘It's very common for our work to be spun by the media as "scare tactics" - that we're threatening the employment of mine workers.'
She also believes that an apathy towards the natural world, particularly amongst the younger generation, has allowed the situation to worsen.
‘Today's youth seems to be largely disconnected from the fact that nature is very important, in fact essential, to our lives. We need to reconnect our youth to our natural environments.'
A silver lining?
There is hope that new legislation will help stem the tide of MTR. House Bill H.R. 1310, known as the ‘Clean Water Protection Act', and Senate Bill S. 696 (‘the Appalachia Restoration Act'), both aim to reduce the usage of MTR as a mining technique.
Both Bills would see an amendment to the existing Clean Water Act that would define ‘fill material' as any pollutant replacing water with dry land, or reducing the water depth. This would make MTR much more difficult, as ‘valley-fills' would become effectively impossible.
The legislation is progressive, but Bonds worries that the political will necessary to push them through might be lacking.
‘I honestly believe that these Bills will not be passed into law unless the politicians have the courage to do so. Mountain-top removal and strip mining is as black-and-white an issue as it gets. I believe many politicians are looking for the courage to act appropriately, the people just need to put the pressure on them and that will provide the courage they need.'
Despite the deep divisions in her community, Bonds' vote remains with grassroots activists able to generate a ‘groundswell of outrage'.
Ultimately, Bonds and her colleagues at Coal River Mountain Watch are unlikely to go quietly into the night. The group has just launched a new website - ilovemountains.org - that allows any US resident to type in their zip code and discover how they are connected with MTR. The site also acts as a hub for action.
But no amount of websites or reports disguise the fact that this fight is bitter, and personal, and likely to be lengthy.
‘My father and brother always said, "every law ever written about coal mining was written in our blood",' Bonds says. ‘I'll always remember that quote'.
Frank Smecker is a writer and social worker from Richmond, Vermont, USA.