Photo courtesy of Valerius Tygart.
Take a helicopter ride over the Appalachia stretch from Ohio to Virginia and what you’ll see may surprise you. Large swaths of the mountain ranges may seem unrecognizable. Instead of natural peaks covered with thick foliage you will see many flattened-off, barren areas covered with rocks and bits of scraggly grass. “Utter moonscapes,” as some locals have come to refer to them where life in any form is next to impossible.
The cause of this drastic beheading of the Appalachian mountains is ‘mountaintop coal mining,’ or MTM, as it is commonly referred to. MTM is a relatively new form of coal removal that works by blasting hundreds of feet off the tops of mountains in order to extract the coal that lies underneath. The process is more cost efficient (for the coal companies) than traditional coal mining shaft operations, hence its recent surge in popularity.
Mining is destructive by nature. Ripping a hole open deep into the Earth’s bedrock and extracting large amounts of sedimentary rock has never been a clean or easy job; but since it is an extremely useful resource that literally fuels all manner of human consumption, it remains an accepted method. Problem is MTM has proven an even more destructive practice than traditional coal mining. Yes, for all our technology, or in this case because of it, a historically harsh occupation just got worse, only this time its pains are not only directed at the workers. Instead MTM is destroying some of America’s most potent areas of biodiversity—the Appalachian mountains.
A large opposition, ranging from widespread environmentalist groups to small and heated groups of local activists, is growing around the issue of MTM. Critics contend that MTM practices ruin the mountain environment and cause serious health concerns via the coal wash-off toxins that are released into the air and nearby streams. Dust from MTM explosions may contain sulfur compounds, which are health hazards that corrode homes and vehicles. One study found that “the cancer rate was twice as high in a community exposed to mountaintop removal mining compared to a non-mining control community.”
Health concerns aside, and though the main issue at hand has been the physical alteration of the landscape, Mountaintop removal coal mining is responsible for tenable environmental damage: The burial of almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams, the leveling of over 500 Appalachian mountaintops, and the ecological devastation of over 800 square miles of one of the most bio-diverse regions of our planet, as the region is home to many endemic species that cannot be found elsewhere. MTM is critically disrupting this ecologically abundant and interconnected region when it fails to return the mountains to the state that they found them in– a practice that mining companies are legally bound to uphold. However, through legislative loopholes, word-play in the documents and deep pockets, companies are able to circumvent adherence to this policy.
Currently legislators in 11 states, prompted by citizen urging, have introduced bills banning the practice of mountaintop coal removal in their states. The list includes most states of the Appalachian mountain range, including Kentucky and West Virginia where the practice has been most prevalent.
On the more ‘radical’ end of the dilemma, many environmental action groups have lent their voices and support to the MTM issue. What began as a local issue has ballooned into a national one as opponents of MTM have systematically practiced acts of civil disobedience in order to spread their message.
The environmental action group Climate Ground Zero conducted a sit-in protest at one of MTM’s working sites for nine days before being arrested for disruption of a work site. Members of several other protest groups, including the more locally focused group Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival, have climbed and occupied trees on blasting sites to spread awareness about the issue. The strategy has two tiers — not only do such protests stall construction, but they also gives time for those on the ground to pursue legal recourse. Some have remained in the trees for up to 30 days.
As far as legislation goes, the MTM issue has been an ongoing tug-of-war for federal agencies, environmental groups, state laws, and mining companies. So far the coal companies and their deep pockets seem to be given more leeway.
While some will decry what may seem to be just the latest fad in the environmentalist preoccupation, a closer look at the real effects of mountaintop coal removal on our fellow Americans living in these regions, as well as the undeniably gross alteration of Appalachian’s physical landscape will likely reveal the issue as one to take seriously.
The issue of mountaintop coal mining has been called a democracy issue: A clash over the rights of everyman to have access to the common resources, in this case clean air and water, against the bulldozing actions of big business. Who will win this fight is unclear at the moment, but if the practice of mountaintop coal mining is allowed to continue amidst the dedicated and continuous voice of a majority opposition, we as a country have relinquished our dearest value.