Appalachia's Vanishing Mountains

By Sleight-Brennan, Sandra | Contemporary Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Appalachia's Vanishing Mountains


Sleight-Brennan, Sandra, Contemporary Review


'IT'S a tragedy, an Appalachian Tragedy, what is happening in the coalfields now', said Julia Bonds, a member of a group of West Virginia residents called Coal River Mountain Watch. 'You drive the main roads and you see a mountain to the left and a mountain to the right. The problem is that you can't see what's behind that mountain'.

What's behind is a different story entirely. The landscape changes from lush, tree-covered mountains to a barren moonscape, the result of a mining practice called mountaintop removal. Julia's home, in the southern West Virginia coalfields, is one of the places where such mining is most common.

'See those trucks down there?' said Virginia Rorrer, another resident, pointing into the distance at a group of six dumper trucks, looking like miniature toys. 'Those trucks have tyres that are almost three metres tall'. The scale made it almost impossible to comprehend.

To date, approximately 162,000 hectares, an area half the size of Luxembourg, have been flattened by mountaintop removal, or, as the mining industry now wants it to be called, 'mountaintop mining'. Hundreds of metres of mountain are blown away in order to get at the thin seams of coal underneath. Once the coal is removed, the excess debris is dumped into nearby valleys and streams. Hundreds of thousands of hectares and over 700 km of streams have been covered by this 'valley fill'.

All this is done with the approval of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the two regulatory agencies charged with protecting the state's air and water and carrying out federal laws.

West Virginia is home to some of the richest mineral resources in the Appalachian mountain chain. The mountains have been mined for over one hundred years. Most families here have several generations of miners; many can trace their roots back nearly 200 years. In the late nineteenth century their mineral rights to vast tracks of land were bought by out-of-state industrialists for a few dollars. Many people became miners to make a living and thousands died of miner's diseases such as black lung and silicosis.

Deep mining, where shafts are dug into the ground, was replaced in the 1950s and 1960s by strip mining, where large machines and blasting are used to eat into the side of a hill to get at the coal. For the past 20 to 30 years, companies have been required to reclaim and restore to the original contours the area they strip-mine. Yet even after all that time it is rare to see trees growing on this 'restored' landscape.

West Virginia is one of the poorest American states: it ranks 49th out of 50 states in household income, and many argue that this is partly due to an over-reliance on extractive industries such as coal and timber, and absentee ownership of those industries. The coal industry claims that mountaintop mining is benefiting the mountain-locked region by creating flat areas to bring new businesses and industries to this poverty-ridden state. Yet in the 30 years that coal companies have been levelling mountains only two per cent of the sites have been used for any development.

Residents argue that in any case they are paying too high a price; their communities, homes and water supplies are being irreversibly damaged. The blasting is fracturing aquifers and the water table is dropping.

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