Though the Mountains May Fall: In Appalachia, the Coal Industry Thrives on Stripping the Landscape-And People's Livelihoods

By Kramer, Kyle T. | U.S. Catholic, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Though the Mountains May Fall: In Appalachia, the Coal Industry Thrives on Stripping the Landscape-And People's Livelihoods


Kramer, Kyle T., U.S. Catholic


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Rick Handshoe lives on the battle line. Explosions shake his house regularly, covering it with dust and debris and cracking its foundation. A convoy of supply trucks rumbles constantly past his front porch. He lives amid danger and disturbance, with peace but a distant memory.

This war zone is not Iraq or Afghanistan but the once-quiet Appalachian mountains of rural eastern Kentucky. In order to extract cheap energy, the coal industry has waged a decades-long war on the Appalachian landscape and its people. Thus far, energy companies have been winning. "They're destroying the mountains," says Handshoe--ancient mountains that took hundreds of millions of years to form, destroyed quickly by human machinery. But though Handshoe and many like him are tired, angry, and outgunned, they are fighting back.

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A rugged region stretching from lower New York to northern Georgia and Alabama, Appalachia sits atop vast quantities of high-quality coal. In recent decades the coal industry has begun to extract this coal by blowing off mountaintops to expose coal seams hundreds of feet below. Where native hardwood forests once stood--one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the temperate world--behemoth dragline excavators scrape away the coal amid a dusty, sterile moonscape of rock and rubble.

Decapitating a mountain produces so much debris (called "spoil" or "overburden") that the material can rarely be replaced in the original contour. Instead, bulldozers shove it into nearby valleys. Where mountain streams once began in the uppermost folds of the mountains, valley fills now sit instead: huge, steep-walled dams of rock, often seeping water laden with toxic chemicals and heavy metals. When mining concludes, the broad plateau that remains is spread with a thin layer of soil, planted with trees or non-native grasses, and pronounced reclaimed.

Hard bargain

Mountaintop removal produces coal with 10 to 25 percent less expense than underground mining. Coal mined in this way seems cheap, however, only if "you think that people's lives are cheap," says Erica Urias, a resident of Pike County, Kentucky. Suspecting that nearby mines were affecting her water supply, Urias had the water tested and discovered that she had been bathing her young daughter in water that far exceeded acceptable levels of arsenic. "My baby girl is paying for coal with her childhood and health," she says, "and to me that's not cheap at all."

Denise and Calvin Howard, also of Pike County, face a similar problem. Mountaintop removal often disturbs underground methane, and their well became so saturated with the flammable gas that it exploded. 3he well casing was still shooting flames months after the explosion.

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Excel Mining, which operated the nearby mine, refused to address the problem adequately unless the Howards signed a liability release waiver. Only after a legal ruling did the company begin to deliver bottled water for cooking and drinking; the Howards have to bathe and do laundry elsewhere. With so much methane dissolved in the water, showering or washing dishes could cause an explosion.

The toll of mountaintop removal mining was even more tragic for the Davidson family in Wise County, Virginia. At 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 20, 2004, a 1,000-pound boulder, loosened by earthmoving equipment at the mine site above, rolled 649 feet down the mountain and through the wall of the Davidson family home, crushing 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson to death in his sleep.

Even those who do not die in such tragic accidents tend to die sooner and have poorer health. Peer-reviewed studies conducted by researchers at West Virginia University and Washington State University indicate that cancer rates doubled near mountaintop removal mines, and birth defects increased 26 percent.

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