Coal’s Ruptured Landscape

It takes a monolithic force, such as the earthly migration of glaciers, to carve mountains. Or maybe just despotic corporatism. Along the backbone of the eastern United States, better known as Appalachia, a relatively new trend in coal mining is underway. Mountaintop removal (MTR), a process through which the ubiquitous hankering for cheap energy, harnessed by the coal industry and, combined with explosives to blow tops of mountains into a state of environmental and socio-economic ruin, has been plaguing Appalachia for decades. Industry giants like Peabody Coal Co., Horizon Resources LLC and Arch Coal Inc. (among others) have taken advantage of coal mining legislation to advance the efficiency of coal extraction through MTR.

Fifty percent of the nation’s electricity comes from coal. What that alludes to is the cold, hard fact that Americans, guided by the coal industry and their lies (e.g. the euphemism ‘clean coal’) are responsible for the burning of over a billion tons of coal per year, resulting in 2.3 billion tons – and climbing – of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere annually. Alongside greenhouse gas emissions, the burning of coal is the leading source of mercury and sulfur dioxide that is noxiously tainting the planet’s freshwaters.

Blowing the Cover

Precipitated by the petroleum crises in the 70s, coal mining quickly became the solution to an impending energy calamity. In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was enabled to ensure regulation over the environmental effects of coal mining. Section 515(c)(1) allowed for coal mining operations to practice mountaintop removal. It purported to show MTR as more efficient than other methods of removal due to coal’s horizontal position located within the lifted terrain.

This piece of legislature is shameful, just downright nauseating. MTR may be more efficient for the transformation of mountains into subsidized energy but it is also extraordinarily efficient at exacerbating drought conditions in a region that is already affected by the degrading desiccation of local watersheds. Not to mention MTR is invariably destructive toward the landbases that provide inhabitants of Appalachia their lives and requirements needed in order to live said lives, i.e. clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and intact landbases to provide food.

When former “President” George W. Bush and his administration proposed the lowering of emissions standards, they embraced the coal industry as the model, placing it at the forefront of the nation’s energy table. With central Appalachia being the top coal supplier in the country, next to Wyoming’s Powder Basin, the floodgates opened. Central Appalachia has been inundated with excavation expansion, and the domineering practice of strip mining (70 percent) is being replaced at an escalating rate by MTR. Arch Coal alone digs up 100 million tons of coal per year; approximately half of this number is obtained through MTR in the Appalachian region.

Despite the recent presidential transitioning from ‘bad cop’ to ‘good cop,’ nothing much has changed. While on the campaign trail, the Obama team received $240,000 from the “clean coal” lobby– chump change indeed, but dirty money is dirty money. Moreover, President Obama appears supportive of the industry, speaking to a rally in Virginia: “We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years; you can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine…in the United States of American and make it work.” In my opinion, some things are better left unexplored ‘O’. Clean coal, which is nothing short of circumlocution in the real world, requires extraction, and that is the crux. The caveat one should pay mind to in Obama’s promulgation is the word ‘mine;’ we can have as much “clean coal” as we want, but the stuff still has to be mined and there are grave costs – and that is the issue at hand.

Last May, following the election, the Obama administration quietly gave the thumbs up to two dozen more mountaintop removals. And permits are still being handed out left and right to ‘mountain-bombers’ (viz. King Coal associates). According to West Virginian coal activist and co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), Judy Bonds, “As far as the President’s policies go, Obama is better than Bush, but that isn’t good enough. If Obama looks hard enough into his heart he’ll abolish mountaintop removal and strip mining. If he doesn’t, then he’s justifying and validating Bush’s previous policies, and that isn’t any better than the past eight years.”

An Assault on Life

Despite legislative rhetoric it is by no means quick and clean as MTR involves numerous measures. The first step in the procedure is to prime the land for excavation, denuding the land of what has been dubbed as ‘overburden.’ To do so, the allotted area is logged – clearcut (in most cases the lumber is sold to timber companies) and the topsoil is removed and set aside. For the many beings that abound on, around and in Appalachia’s mountains the leonine roar of dragline excavators is an ominous portent of the ensuing blasting and widespread loss of life. The next step entails the application of the ammonium nitrate mixture to blast away the subsoil, exposing the dormant seams of coal. Because coal is found in lateral layers of subsoil, the debris is then pushed aside and excavated.

After the coal is brought to the plant for processing the remaining toxic sludge, known as ‘coal slurry,’ is deposited into designated slurry pools and left to stagnate, creating infecund, fetid pools that pose serious health threats to the surrounding communities of people, trees, animals, and watersheds.

With all of the noxious substances tainting the region’s land, children are often victims of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and shortness of breath: symptoms that are pertinent to blue baby syndrome. The long-term effects can be terminal; some include cancers of the digestive tract, bone damage, and liver failure. To paraphrase author and professor at the University of Kentucky, Erik Reese, the above symptoms are common ailments attributed to the exposure of heavy metals found in leachate befouling the region. Or perhaps the symptoms are related to the event in which 300 million gallons of coal-slurry spilt when a holding pool collapsed in 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky.

There is a slurry pool containing billions of gallons of noxious sludge nestled less than a mile from the March Fork Elementary School – which is just utterly bankrupt of commonsense.

In a recent confab I had with Judy Bonds, she lamented to me that she watched with tear-glazed eyes her grandson attempt to play in a stream littered with the corpses of fish; that her grandson suffered from asthma from coal dust accumulating within their home. Ultimately, she involved herself in activism because she was sick and tired of witnessing the abuses the coal industry inflicts on children in the area; tired of watching the land beneath her feet become toxic with coal slurry.

Central Appalachia is home to North America’s most diverse landbases. The region exhibits an exuberant array of bird species, accounting for 250 varieties. The ecology of the area is bountiful with more than 70 varying tree genera and up to 30 different species within a single site – a field day for the tree-enthusiast, but more importantly, home to the magnificent birds of the area and their fledgling young. Many other flora and fauna, such as bear, various conifers, fish, and bobcats, to name a handful, call this palatial bastion of unique forestry home. The land is also a natural haven for miles upon miles of streams, head streams, and watersheds.

“This area boasts the world’s most diverse deciduous forests, only the Amazon has a larger variety of tree specimen. When you destroy mountains you destroy forests,” Bonds grieves. “These mountains are important to the northeast. We need to stop valuing our forests and mountains in terms of dollars. A standing tree is worth more than one that has been felled to the ground,” she supplicates.

Bonds explained that many of the nonhuman animals of the area are being threatened. Leaf shredders and mayflies, both vital in maintaining the health of the riparian ecology, are vanishing quickly. These forests contain more than fifty plant and animal species being driven to the point of extinction.

Currently, two-thirds of the songbirds endemic to Kentucky’s Cumberland Plateau are in decline– a direct result of big boys playing with big explosives. Is this really about energy, or the infatuation male testosterone has with things that go boom? Could this all be allusive to the sovereignty of capitalism and its subversive barbarity, perpetuated by an aggressive, despotic patriarchy? I don’t know for sure, but this I do know: the corporate elite of King Coal is snuffing out life in one of the most spectacular bioregions on this planet at an expeditious rate, destroying lives at an unprecedented level. It needs to stop. The EPA estimates that 7 percent (320,000 acres) of the prolific forests and watersheds have been lost so far, and if continued at its current rate 1.4 million acres – larger than the state of Delaware – will be vanquished within a couple years.

Since the onslaught of mining throughout the region by means of MTR, 750 miles of the aforementioned streams have been completely buried beneath debris, suffocating nearly all macroinvertebrates (insects, mollusks, snails, worms) in the headwater streams, deeply scarring the web of life.

When the top of a mountain is defoliated of its ‘cover’ and then blown into smithereens, most of the debris is scattered and/or appropriated into the valleys below and into headwaters and streams. Between 1985 and 2001, 6700 valley fills had been consummated. That equates to 84,000 acres of forest and watershed destroyed and/or defiled from the impetuous dumping of sedimentation. When valley-fills occur they create floodplains, leading to flooding in an area that wasn’t naturally subjected to flooding in the past. Combined with heavy-metal leachate from the mine sites, this all conduces to a dying ecology and a toxic landbase. Every time there is a spill or a flood cleanup comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

Recently, there was the Kingston spill that dumped 1.6 billion gallons of heavy-metal-laden coal ash over 400 acres, by far the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. There was also the intentional release of pernicious substances and heavy metals into the Ocoee River in Tennessee. Trying to wrap my head around this despairing situation, I asked Bonds for her perspective.

“We’re seeing the destruction of entire watersheds and it all runs down hill,” she says. “Close to where I lived, the Little March Fork was poisoned, and that flowed into the larger March Fork stream and then into the Coal River. The Coal River empties into the Kanawha River and into the Ohio River, then into the Mississippi River which empties into the ocean. The poisons that flow into the ocean get into the atmosphere and fall back on the region through rainfall. So far 1,200 miles of streams and headwaters have been destroyed. The watershed and stream systems are extremely sensitive, and last time I looked, humans needed water. If nothing is done to stop this, we’re looking at least double that damage in the near future.”

Society Pays a Price

The coal industry is not just culpable for poor environmental policy, but their reprehensible policies and exploits are wreaking havoc on the people of the region as well. Eighty percent of the harvested coal is shipped outside of the area, mainly to Texas – the largest coal-consuming state in the U.S. One’s supposition would be that the export would generate wealth for Appalachia. But it doesn’t. Big Coal collects all the remuneration; profits go into the shareholders’ pockets and poverty accounts for over 50 percent of the central Appalachian region. The fact that flooding in the region is not a rare occurrence only exacerbates the abject poverty of the area. According to the article “Moving Mountains” scribed by Erik Reese in the February, 2006 issue of the environmental magazine Orion, in the year 2000 seven floods affected the town of Bob White, West Virginia after mountain top removal began in the surrounding mountains of the Cherry Pond Range. The recurring floods have been antecedent to evacuations and displacement. It is like a warzone.

Production as Annihilation

In order for one to set charges to millions of pounds of ammonium nitrate, blow entire tops of mountains off, remove only what is of perceivable utility (i.e. coal), and dump the remains of mountaintops over more than a thousand miles of headwater streams and river basins, one must first perceive a lifeless object to be exploited: a resource to be managed.

Throughout Appalachia, entire mountain communities proliferate with some of the world’s most diverse beings living together in dynamic equilibrium, each life integral to another, all arising from their own unique places. These communities are, and abut, the nascent waters borne from springs emerging with erumpent display. Soils, rocks, lichens and moss foster the novitiate streams along their maturity into specific waterways, ultimately into the great Atlantic and into the atmosphere to be precipitated down to recommence the latter cycle – providing life and sustenance to every living being along the way. All of this is silenced and dead psychically in the coal-mining culture before becoming dead physically in the natural world of Appalachia. To rephrase this in the form of a question: Would you gather a group of your friends, armed to the teeth with explosives, and consciously blow up an entire community of diverse life? (If you answer yes, seek help immediately). For most of us, the answer is no, hell fucking no. Unless of course, you and your pals don’t see the functioning communities alive with diversity. And that is the underlying problem at hand.

To the miners, but moreso, to the CEOs, all the way down the chain of command to the foremen and diffused throughout an entire culture, the inculcation of objectivity over subjectivity is first and primary for CEOs to value capital over life; for miners to set fuses that will end – scratch that, destroy life and, for those who direct the protocol. For an entire culture to become reliant upon and endorse this violence –  to choose coal-fired power plants over life, to choose subsidized energy to power TVs, microwaves, and refrigerators for soda pop and cold-cuts over life – for all this to manifest, life outside the human sphere must not be seen in its entirety. To erase a mountain with explosives it mustn’t be perceived as a community of living beings in cooperation but rather viewed objectively as a retainer of resources to be extracted.

How could we tolerate the forever loss of mountains and their forest chains and watersheds if we truly experienced these landscapes convivially and reciprocally, as the communities they are, animated with diverse life? We couldn’t. But many have become blind, deaf and, virtually insensate to other life on this planet. They don’t see the inextricable relations weaving our world into being. They don’t perceive the beingness of nonhuman others. This is why many cherish large-scale production over life. If all life were cherished over large-scale production, communities would not be blasted apart to power a grid that powers TVs and incandescent light bulbs.

Wendel Berrry, a prolific writer and agrarian from Kentucky, wrote in September 2009’s issue of The Progressive:

For coal to feed the fires by which we live, whole landscapes are destroyed, forests and their soils and creatures are obliterated, streams are covered over, watersheds are degraded and polluted, poisonous residues are left behind, communities are degraded or flooded by toxic wastes or runoff from denuded watersheds, the people are exploited and endangered, their houses damaged, their drinking water poisoned, their complaints and needs ignored. When the fossil fuels, extracted at such a cost to people and nature, are burned, they pollute the atmosphere of all the world, with consequences that are fearful, infamous, and continuing.

Knowing the extent of the devastation and annihilation, the suffering and immiseration, the maiming and scarring attached to the coal industry, how can anyone tolerate this without an emotional response evinced from some place deep within our sacred, wild bodies? It’s time we recognize life again – for all its beauty and grandeur. Not for reified or aesthetic reasons, but for the sake of living beautiful, healthy lives in healthy communion with healthy natural landbases and their inhabitants.

It is more apparent now than ever before that coal mining, especially mountain top removal, is unethical and inhumane. It displays stark irresponsibility in land stewardship as well as depraved practices within a diverse region. It’s time to shake off the flawed belief that we are reliant upon coal and other fossil fuels. Renewable energy, in tandem with radical fundamental lifestyle changes, and communion with our natural environments, are the promising candidates to swap out archaic coal and its environmental-socioeconomic-laggard industry. Let’s put a stop to the systematic dismantling of Appalachia’s ecological infrastructure. And continue from there.

FRANK JOSEPH SMECKER is a writer and social worker from Vermont. He can be reached at: