The freedom to travel more often and collect interviews inevitably led me back to Appalachia, the land so rich with storytellers. In terms of economic reality, nothing had changed since the 1970s, when I did Appalachian stories for All Things Considered. Big energy companies still exploited the region’s coal deposits with little benefit to the people who lived there. What had changed was the process for extracting the coal.
Industry used to burrow into the beautiful Appalachian Mountains and extract the coal through tunnels. Later it employed the more invasive process of strip mining, cutting away a slice of the mountain all the way around at the source of the coal seam, leaving an ugly scar. Now the companies just take the mountains down. Using a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, coal companies blow off the tops and sides of the mountains to expose the seams of coal. The trees, topsoil, and rock are pushed over the side into hollows between the mountains, often burying streams running through the hollows.
Estimated to have formed nearly 300 million years ago, the Appalachian Mountains are North America’s oldest. During the last Ice Age, the central and southern Appalachians were spared. When the ice melted, the dense, lush, green forests of Appalachia reforested the rest of the continent. The mountains provide habitat for thousands of species of flora and fauna. The scourge of mountaintop-removal coal mining is the perfect storm of environmental degradation—nature’s worst nightmare. It destroys mountains, forests, streams, and habitat all at