By Tom Butler

Imagine a mountain in Appalachia, cloaked in green. A spring morning, with mist rising and the air alive with birdsong. A riot of wildflowers splashes the forest floor. In the canopy of a massive tulip poplar, male warblers flit among gauzy leaves, singing to potential mates. Black bears amble about the woods, seeking calories to replace those consumed during a long winter’s nap.

This is a community powered by sunlight. Ecologists have lately become adept at tracking energy as it flows through ecosystems, but even the most sophisticated schematic of food webs presents only a partial picture of reality. The energy economy of nature is amazingly elegant. There is no waste, only food for another organism. Not quantifiable by any data set or scientific analysis, however, is the beauty of life. The mountain in mind—the one I’ve asked you to imagine—is a glorious place, typical of myriad real places in the southern Appalachians now being obliterated by surface coal mining. The temperate forest ecosystem covering these ancient Appalachian ridges is among the biologically richest and most aesthetically pleasing parts of North America.

We—human beings—are not the author of this wondrous beauty and ecological vitality. The land’s richness is of itself, and for itself. We did not make it—but we are unmaking it with a brutality that is breathtaking to behold. There is a name for this unmaking of the wild world: efficiency. The horror that is mountaintop-removal coal mining—an ecological and social tragedy—is, by the logic of the marketplace, an efficient utilization of resources, a normal and predictable consequence of an economy based on converting natural capital into commodities and then into monetary wealth.

Return again to the mountain in your mind’s eye, the one alive with creatures going about their business. Now the forest is bulldozed into a pile and set ablaze. The topsoil, source of all life, is scraped away and buried under rubble, wasted. Now a series of holes are drilled into the earth, filled with explosives, and detonated. Picture the mountain blown apart piece by piece, dismantled systematically, to expose the thin veins of dark, carbon-rich rock. The rock we burn to keep the lights on.

It seems to me deeply ironic that the peril now facing the biosphere—a radically disrupted climate due to modern industrial humans transferring molecules of carbon from underground repositories into the atmosphere—stems from perfectly benign natural processes. Long ago, in a time so far removed from human history as to be unimaginable except to a few odd cranks called geologists, the sun shone. Plants grew and died, and the organic detritus accumulated. Over eons, geological processes shaped and squeezed that detritus into various forms of carboniferous matter. Much, much later, when humans appeared on the scene, these dark rocks would fuel the fires of the Industrial Revolution, befoul the skies of London and other cities of the newly “developing” world, and power up our iPods.

Coal: the fused, carbonized bodies of plants fueled by ancient sunlight. Coal: a boon to humankind, and also a curse. Coal-related air pollution was bad enough in London by 1285 that various commissions were formed to address the problem, and coal was England’s dominant fuel source, surpassing wood, by 1600. Initially, muscle power from people and domestic animals was adequate to reach coal seams near the surface. But deeper mining was limited until the invention of the steam engine allowed mechanical pumps to clear mine shafts of pooling water. Coal-powered engines and pumps, introduced in the early 1700s, allowed workers to dig deeper and access more coal.

Thus fossil fuel exploitation set in motion a positive feedback loop whereby technological innovation spurred additional fossil fuel use, and the resulting energy powered economic growth and further technological innovation. Coal, and the engines it could power, helped set society on a course toward ever-greater technology, specialization, globalization, and economic expansion.

Humanity’s adoption of coal power didn’t just make possible a particular kind of economy and the social organization that went with it, but also helped create a worldview, a philosophy of unlimited economic growth based on ever more complex technology. And this was the greatest lingering curse from the original sin of coal mining—the further estrangement of people from nature. Instead of our rightful place as “plain member and citizen of the biotic community,” as the great conservationist Aldo Leopold phrased it, humans would assume the role of Lord Man, conqueror of the Earth. The power of burning rocks was not solely responsible for the schism between humanity and non-human nature, but certainly helped fuel anthropocentric hubris and the swath of destruction it would wreak across the globe.

The mountaintop-removal mine may be the ultimate manifestation of modern industrial people’s ideology of conquest. It symbolizes a toxic culture, a culture so thoroughly divorced from humanity’s roots in wild nature that it views the living Earth merely as a smorgasbord of “resources” for exploitation and profit. Blowing up mountains and burying streams in pursuit of coal is a practice that could only be conceived by people who have forgotten—or rejected—our species’ kinship with all life. It is a form of violence against the land so rapacious that it literally condemns mountains to death. It ignores the fundamental need for health. It promotes sickness. It is utterly contemptuous of the future. It is one generation of humans saying to other members of the land community, you don’t matter, and to our own descendants, screw you, I got mine.

The radiological poisons humans have created during the nuclear age may be deadly ten thousand years from now, but the geographical engineering that is presently being accomplished in Appalachia by coal companies operating mountaintop-removal mines is essentially permanent. The corporations that are scalping mountains and helping turn an entire region into an undeclared national energy sacrifice zone are powered by greed. On behalf of their shareholders, on behalf of the electric utilities that are the major customers for the coal, on behalf of every American who believes in the myths of “cheap” energy and “clean” coal, the mining companies are waging war on the wildlife and people of Appalachia. And they are winning.

The more than 470 mountains that have already been blown apart as surface coal mining has gotten more and more radical in its destructive power will not grow back. Erosion, deposition, tectonic action—it is for geological processes now, over the course of deep time, to soften the scars on the land. The damage will be visible as long as humans walk the earth.

While the mountaintop-removal mine may be an apt metaphor for a society based on cancerous growth, the practical effects of surface coal mining on the ecosystems and human communities of Appalachia are anything but symbolic. They are everyday realities for people living throughout the coalfields of Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia. Air and water pollution, overloaded coal trucks traveling narrow mountain roads, forest fragmentation, excessive levels of coal dust, massive coal-slurry impoundments perched over communities, degradation of headwater streams—these and other effects are suffered by people and wildlife across the region.

There is, of course, a diversity of opinion within coalfield communities about the necessity of surface mining. Many families rely on coal-related jobs. The long history of coal mining in Appalachia has helped define the regional culture. People are rightfully proud of the camaraderie, courage, skill, and, at times, outright heroism that past generations of deep miners displayed as they dug coal for a growing nation.

The centrality of coal mining in the heritage, culture, and economy of the region makes it difficult for citizens to speak out against modern coal-industry practices that are destructive to the land and people. Those who do are often shunned, harassed, or worse. It can be dangerous to oppose the dominant industry in a community. Friendships may fracture. And this is another tragedy of mountaintop-removal coal mining—that it not only ravages the physical landscape, but can also destroy the bonds within communities, among friends, and even within families.

One need not endorse any particular viewpoint or have even given much thought to deeper systemic issues regarding energy policy, industrial growth, global climate change, or the erosion of democracy to be concerned about mountaintop removal. For activists who become engaged on the issue, these larger questions may come later. The key point is to become engaged. Grassroots organizations throughout Appalachia are leading the fight to oppose the practice. The amazing individuals from coalfield communities who have founded these efforts have diverse opinions and differing emphases—but share remarkable solidarity on one point: Steep-slope surface coal mining in Appalachia is fundamentally destructive. It must end. And they share a unified hope that the region’s economic fortunes need not be forever tied to a dominant extractive industry.

The need for a sensible, ecologically informed economic development policy in Appalachia is great. At present, there is a strong correlation between the counties in the region with the greatest amount of surface-coal-mining activity and the highest rates of poverty. There will be a future beyond coal—for the planet, and for the land and people of Appalachia. The challenge before us as a nation is to move there quickly, before more mountaintops are blasted away, steering the economic transition toward local, sustainable, durable relationships that are environmentally sound and promote social equity. There is plenty of work to be done, and a key initial step is alerting Americans from every part of the country about mountaintop-removal coal mining and inviting their participation in the effort to stop the plunder of Appalachia.

Copyright 2009 — Plundering Appalachia: The Tragedy of Mountaintop-Removal Coal Mining

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