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LOCAL Commentary :: Environment

Mountain Top Removal: We Are All Downstream

Only an aerial view of mountain top removal can make us understand the scope of the devastation already caused by blowing the tops off the Appalachian mountains to find coal.
“Just ahead is Keyford,? the pilot's voice announced into my earphones.
Looking down out of the clear plexiglass door of our 4-seater plane, I watched the lush, forest green rolling hills of West Virginia suddenly give way to what looked lie a huge patch of desert.
“Skin cancer,? said my mind. “Moonscape. Cigarette burn.? As my brain struggled to make sense of the expanse of devastation below me, my head was filled with images of other horrors I've witnessed; the cigarette burn scars on a torture survivor's back; my father's skin cancer.
What was once Keyford Mountain is now one of the biggest sites of mountain top removal coal mining in West Virginia (10,000 acres). And mountain top removal, says Judy Bond of Coal River Mountain Watch, “is an open, gaping wound,? a wound the world has yet to recognize.
How to get the world to understand the scope and scale of the destruction wrought by mountain top removal throughout the Appalachian mountains was a prime question at the Heartwood Environmental Conference May 26-28th in the mountains of West Virginia. Over 250 people from Virginia, West Virginia,, Kentucky, Tennessee, and even Wyoming, gathered to educate themselves, support each other and organize what one Kentucky activist called “a hillbilly insurrection?. I was one of 9 folks randomly selected to participate in a fly-over of mountain top removal sites.
Unless you see it from the air, there is no way to understand the scale of the landscape destruction, explained Mary Anne Hitt, director of Appalachian Voices and composer of a haunting folk song on the subject entitled “The Most Beautiful Place in the World?. Indeed, having viewed the Keyford mining site last year from the property of anti-MTR warrior Larry Gibson, one of the few mountain folks who still owns land in Keyford, I'd have to agree. Looking down onto the MTR site from his property, which used to be the lowest site on that mountain range and is now the highest, I felt sick—whole mountains had been bulldozed into the surrounding valleys, destroying ecosystems and polluting streams. The coal mining process created toxic dust and toxic sludge, which contaminate the air and water. And when the mining is done, the remaining barren plain, replanted in nonnative grasses, resembles a dried-out golf course.
And now, looking down onto the same site from the air, I felt like part of me was dying, some deep, organic part that is connected to this earth we live on was aching with sadness at the way we have poisoned her. As I looked away from the Keyford mine site, hoping to sooth my troubled mind with the beautiful image of those rolling hills, I did a double take. For surrounding Keyford on almost every side, as far as the eye could see, were more patches of desert in the hills. Mountain top removal appeared to be everywhere like a fast-spreading cancer--patches of mined land, swirling ponds of coal sludge, long, deep gashes coal transport roads. Everywhere I looked I could see signs of our wanton destruction of our own habitat, not to mention that of the rest of Earth's creatures'.
It reminded me of that moment in childhood when I first understood the finality and inevitability of death. Now, as then, I felt a permanent sadness creep into my consciousness. I will never forget the destruction of the earth wrought by mountain top removal. Nor will I forget that it is we humans, we Americans, we neighbors of Appalachia, who are allowing this to happen to our earth.
Larry Bush, a former miner and mining inspector from southwest Virginia, and a Vietnam War veteran, says living in a coalfield town today gives one the same experience of post tramatic stress syndrome he experienced in and after the war. “Our water is poisoned. We have asthma. Our homes and families are being destroyed. People around here are living in fear.? This is especially true for people in Larry's area, where two years ago a boulder knocked loose during illegal nighttime work at an MTR site rolled into a trailor home killing three-year-old Jeremy Davidson as he lay sleeping. The company, A & G Coal Mining, was fined, but just three months ago, another man had a boulder come through his roof.
“A lot of people around here feel helpless. No matter what we do, they mine anyway. Where is it written that I have to give up my home, my health and my water so someone else can get rich?? Seeing the grave injustice and the lasting ecological and economic destruction of MTR, Larry does not give in to that helplessness. He continues to file complaints with the department of mining, though they often refuse to act on them (Recent water tests have shown levels of effluence 10 times what is allowable. When Larry called the Dept. of Mining, they came out and refused to test the water themselves: “It looks OK? they told Larry). He attends conferences like Heartwood. He talks to anyone who will listen. “I was telling my doctor about this the other day, and he had no idea of the scope of what's going on.?
Some coalfield residents have evidence in their own bodies of what is being done to their water and air. Donnetta, aged 39, spoke at the conference about the health effects of poisoned water on her family. She was diagnosed last year with liver disease and given a year to live. She also has osteoperosis. Her 19 year-old daughter had her gall bladder removed. Her son has a skin condition. And her 13-year-old daughter doesn't like to leave home for fear her mother will die.
Meanwhile, coal companies insist that mountain top removal, which they call contour mining or surface mining, is both safe and environmentally friendly. Judy Bond says we must take back our language from the coal companies: “Cheap energy? is really expensive; a “slurry impoundment? is a toxic dam. And there is no such thing as “clean coal?. Coal companies are tauting coal as a 'clean' source of fuel, while they poison the local water in the extraction process. Chris Irwin of the Tennessee Mountain Defenders, who has been sued by the coal companies just for talking about MTR, says the coal companies are destroying 10,000 years worth of clean water for seven years of coal profits. And the Pentagon is now saying that our future wars will be fought over water. So, say coalfield activists, we are all downstream. As I looked down on the dozens of permanent scars already left in the wake of MTR, and thought of the hundreds of miles of streams polluted from the process of creating them, I could feel the truth of that statement. We are all down stream, and somehow we've got to save what's left.

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