How a Mountain Dies


O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!

-William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

Rock Creek, West Virginia.

Highway 3 follows the route of the Coal River in southwestern West Virginia and this is where coal was first discovered in the US. Here is where the future meets the past, and it’s where they both end.

Almost four years ago, when I moved here, in the glory of summer, all I could see was ridge line after ridge line, in every shade of green, outlined by a blue sky filled with puffy clouds.  The river ran clear and the air was full of promise.

Once a backwater in the environmental struggle, this river, the Coal River, was now ground zero in the most important fight in all of Appalachia’s history. It is a fight for history itself, a fight to preserve the future, a fight for survival.

The sight of the new coal dragline just above Peachtree Hollow and the bleeding scares now evident from the highway remind me that in spite of what we might want to believe, we really haven’t come very far as a civilized nation. All of the things we thought we were too civilized to do any more, we still do, and we do it with larger machines and with automated efficiency.  A dragline like this one can reduce a mountain to a parking lot in less than a year, burying miles of streams and dislocating people who were living on the land long before the war for independence.

The blasting we are seeing today has its roots deep in West Virginia’s past, where immediate economic necessity has always trumped any demand the future might make on the land. When death is stalking, the future is its first victim. Here on the Coal River, death is everywhere, although it is rarely visible except in the unusually high number of funeral parlors and florists. The only thriving businesses outside of coal here are the mortuaries, flower shops and the legal profession, which display large billboards advertising for clients. “Wrongful death, personal injury, black lung? Call us!”

The miners themselves seem to have embraced a cult of death, and they display skulls with pickax crossbones on their over sized pickup trucks, as if to remind us that their end is never very far away. They are proud to face death, but for them this is not really a war. For them, the war was lost when they entered the mines.

Now, it is only a matter of time, each day bringing more pain and withdrawal, while increasingly many are turning to prescription drugs to numb their aching joints, eschewing the moonshine that their fathers drank. Their children have also turned to the pills in large numbers, and many of them cannot find work even in the mines because they can’t pass a drug test, and this has resulted in a labor shortage that forces the coal companies to import miners from other regions. Those who can’t be hired are often reduced to petty crime, often against their own families, to feed the beast of their addiction. It is no wonder that half of all West Virginians alive now live somewhere else.

Not everyone is willing to join this cult of death. When those who chose to vote with their feet return home for family visits, they are often viewed with distrust and disdain by the miners who don’t even wash the coal dust off of their faces when they sit down to dinner.

A coal miner’s life was never easy. But we must always remember that the miner is not the only victim. Lots of occupations are dangerous, and many miners find the dangers not only part of the job, but a source of pride. This, along with the camaraderie that workers who face danger together share is part of the lure of the mines. The industry champions the miner as if he were fighting a war to keep the lights on in good ol’ America, but the miner will always say he is doing what he must to feed his family. No West Virginian cares a hoot about lighting up New York City.

Death has never been a stranger to Appalachia. Before the arrival of the coal companies a fierce war was fought here for over two hundred years between European settlers and the native peoples who had farmed the floodplains and hunted the hills for thousands of years. And it was a war that the colonists could not win until finally European introduced diseases decimated their towns and villages, ending a fierce and successful indigenous resistance to the European occupation. War plagues and genocide continued even into the Civil War, and no family was left untouched by death and deprivation.  Since first contact with Europeans the area had had been a battlefield, and following the plagues Appalachia became almost uninhabited, consisting of small bands eking out a harsh living among a growing population of  poor immigrants who were themselves fleeing plagues, poverty, famine and persecution. Persevering against incredible odds, these scrappy farmers survived in a land of hunger and death by taking jobs in logging and mining, beginning the process of dismantling the very ecosystem on which all of their wealth depended.  Their next war would be with the Earth itself. Just as during the Second World War General Patton’s tanks would demolish a Gothic cathedral in order to kill one sniper, the miner will demolish a mountain for one paycheck.

Death has escaped the mines and now stalks the communities. People who have never been in a mine are dying from the effects of the daily blasting that  not only contaminates the streams and rivers, but from the toxic clouds of dust which contains high levels o poly aromatic hydrocarbons, silica and other deadly chemical agents that blanket the region rendering the soil unsafe for farming and have sent cancer rates and birth defects skyrocketing on the Coal River where mortality rates are already are some of the highest in the country.

The human health impacts from mountaintop removal are not caused by any operational failure; it is very the act of removing the mountain itself that is causing the harm.  Recently released peer-reviewed scientific research clearly exposes mountaintop removal as a human health hazard yielding great consequences. According to Bo Webb, the founder of Naoma based Appalachia Community Health Emergency (ACHE),

“A non-smoking pregnant woman in an MTR community is 10 times more likely to have a baby with a respiratory birth defect than a woman in a non-MTR community that smokes during pregnancy. This is scientific fact, not a fear of something that may happen, it is real.  The research indicates that citizens living beneath and near mountaintop removal operations are breathing fallout from diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate explosives, silica dust, and a variety of toxins.  PAH toxins are now present in our garden soil.  Mountaintop removal is a health crisis in motion, triggering an inimitable cost on human life and the economy of Appalachia.  It is a moral imperative that our nation take immediate steps to rectify this health crisis.”

You’d want to think that this new information would cause a reexamination by the responsible agencies and the courts, if not the coal industry, on the subject of detonating two millions pounds of explosive’s each day above the communities of Appalachia. Yet on Friday, March 24th, US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee, overturned a veto by the Environmental Protection Agency, and declared that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water pollution permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County is “valid and in full force,” claiming the EPA had overstepped its authority.

Last year’s cancellation of the St. Louis based Arch Coal’s Spruce Number 1 Mine plan to expand into the world’s largest MTR site was hailed by environmentalists as a major victory, even though it did little to address the ongoing problem of the daily blasting, and was the first such veto in the agency’s over 40 year history. Such victories have been rare in the decades long struggle to force the Federal government to enforce laws all ready on the books and which the Army Corps of Engineers had always ignored. The Corps were supposed to consult with the EPA before granting the permit, but such consultations have never occurred. The court’s decision not only ignores the Corps mandate to protect the waterways of the US, it violates the EPA’s mandate to allow no degradation to existing healthy streams. The EPA is now considering an appeal.  Judge Berman Jackson did not consider the impacts to public health that the new studies clearly indicate, so hers will likely not be the last word on this.

Standing on the Spruce Number One mine site one can sense the future of Appalachia, or rather the lack of one. Recently hailed as a major victory against strip mining, the Spruce Mine was supposedly shut down according to the jubilant e-mails of the largest environmental groups. The victory, such as it was, simply prohibited the coal company from dumping anymore overburden, as the remains of the mountain are called, into the headwaters of Seng Camp Creek just below. In compliance with the EPA veto, these spoils were simply deposited into an adjacent creek, and the blasting of the ridge tops continued unabated and Arch Coal simply went on with blasting, waiting for the courts, which had usually ruled in their favor, to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.

The rocky surface on which I am standing is hard and lifeless. Every ten yards or so the naked ground has been pierced with eight inch diameter drill holes of an undetermined depth. The holes have been packed with explosives, refilled with gravel and small wires protrude from each one, ready to receive the electrical charge that will detonate the diesel fuel and fertilizer mix and dislodge another layer of strata to be scooped up and dumped below into the headwaters of another stream.

Tomorrow the blasting crew will arrive early and wire the charges together, sound the alarm and another ten million years worth of sedimentary rock will be blasted and pulverized and pushed over the cliff to expose an 18 inch seam of coal. This is how a mountain dies, and with it the streams and forests, lakes and meadows, and the uncountable species of plants and animals, many that exist nowhere else on Earth.

Save for the blasting crew and the half a dozen workers, who operate the heavy machinery, there will be few witnesses. Below, the town of Blair, once a bristling community of underground miners and their families, with a high school, restaurants, store and bars, lies all but deserted, it buildings standing empty and in ruins,  most of its citizens long since dispersed to unfamiliar places. There are few left to hear the explosions that thunder down hollows that once rang with the sounds of children’s laughter, to feel the ground shaking explosions, to witness the rise of the dust cloud that drifts over the Coal River Valley, to shiver at the airhorn blast of the mile long train that will haul the coal off to a power plant far removed from this scene of pure and pitiful desolation.

To pretend that the rule of law is anywhere in effect in Southern Appalachia one must be blind to science, reason, human decency and the law itself. It is as if one lived in a land where murder was permitted and no one even bothered to get a permit. Murder and death.  This is not just an analogy, you can smell it, you can feel it and you can even see it if you pay attention. When someone murders an individual, it’s news, when you murder a town, it’s a rumor, when you murder a mountain, it’s invisible. What would you do if it were your daughter, your uncle, your town or the mountain you live on?

Bo Webb is convinced that these new health studies are the key to ending MTR. ACHE has recently mobilized a grassroots campaign to bring these studies to the attention of the agencies responsible for public health. “This is no longer just an environmental issue” says Webb, “It’s a human rights issue, and we are taking the fight to the Department of Human Health Services, to the Justice Department and to the Congressional committees that deal with public health emergencies. We want a full Congressional investigation, more research on the health impacts and most importantly a moratorium on any more blasting until the results of the new studies are in. The coal companies are killing us and this has got to stop.”

ACHE has been begun sending delegations of Coal River residents to press their case in Washington. They vow to leave no stone unturned. ACHE has no paid staff or office, just a strong desire to drive the final nail in the coffin of MTR. They need your support for travel costs and motels to do this.To get involved, please contact Bo Webb at ACHE @  “http://www.stoptheache.org/

MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero. He can be reached at: mikeroselle@hotmail.com

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