Thanks for the mountains

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We took a couple of long walks over Thanksgiving weekend and plenty of photos, too — the squinting family, the cottonwoods’ glory, the adorable baby. In so many of these pictures, lacing the background of fields and sky were the lovely blue mountains. I realized anew how grateful I am for las sierras — that I wouldn’t want to live here without them nearby.

This got me thinking about the unthinkable: reports we hear of “mountaintop removal” coal mining in Appalachia, and what those folks’ Thanksgiving was really like. I sensed I’ve long lingered in dazed denial that such an abomination as mechanically dismantling mountain ranges can really occur. So once the kids and grandbabe headed for home, I “looked it up.”

For thousands of citizens of eastern Kentucky, east central Tennessee, southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia, the massive charges detonate daily — even on Thanksgiving. Every week, Appalachia is rocked with the explosive equivalent of the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima. Over 500 mountains have been severely impacted or destroyed. And nearly 2,000 miles of headwater streams have been snuffed out.

First, the trees and topsoil are scraped off, including the herbs — the goldenseal, the American ginseng — everything. In the rush to expose the more profitable coal, the timber is rarely harvested and sold. This “refuse” is burned or simply dumped onto the “holler” — the nearest valley bottom. The holler is soon filled with the exploded mountaintop and its watershed buried forever.

Even a mine spokesman admits these valleys “are buried for all eternity” under the top 600 to 800 feet of a mountain’s shattered peaks or ridgelines. Untold species in their niches are extinguished beneath this “overburden” of debris. The deed is done by “draglines” — excavators that boggle the mind. A machine weighs eight-million pounds and stands 22-stories high, on a base the size of a gymnasium. Its bucket could hold 20 American automobiles.

Each dragline eliminates the need for several hundred American miners. In mountaintop removal operations, two and a half times as much coal can be extracted per worker than in traditional underground mines. Kentucky lost over 60 percent of its mining jobs with the conversion to MTR (industry slang). A small crew, working day and night, can devour an entire mountain in less than a year.

But what’s the point of all this madness? What part of “energy independence” do I not understand? Well, get this: all this desecration amounts to less than 5 percent of U.S. coal production and a mere 4.5 percent of American electricity generation. Meanwhile, Wise County, Virginia has had 40 percent of its land surface leveled and pulverized.

So for me, one burning question remained: how did Mountaintop Removal slip past American environmental law? We have the National Environmental Policy Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Clean Water Act — all designed as powerful tools meant to protect and restore our resources as they are being developed. Well, it’s a long and tawdry story …

Those laws were effectively circumvented by the EPA, who deferred to the Army Corps of Engineers, who defer to the coal-mining states, who owe their bread (if not butter) to the long-present coal companies, who influence mine regulators and, unfortunately, judicial appointments and races. District courts dependably side with the besieged citizens (who constantly sue), but the Fourth Circuit just as dependably overturns, siding with King Coal every time.

This entire travesty was kicked off in October 2001, when the Bush administration co-opted a court-ordered environmental review of MTR. Interior’s Minerals secretary at the time — a former National Mining Association lobbyist — informed every government agency involved that the draft Environmental Impact Statement “was going to be taken in a different direction.” Sure enough: the final EIS commands the Corps of Engineers to “focus on centralizing and streamlining coal-mine permitting.”

The Environmental Protection Agency was barred from considering (as required by law) more environmentally sound alternatives to mountaintop removal mining. The exhaustive studies conducted in preparation for the EIS were deliberately ignored. These had confirmed that Appalachian highlands are among the most biologically diverse temperate forests on Earth and that MTR led to the annihilation of these ecosystems.

Mountaintop Removal was also implicated in the doubling of Appalachians’ cancers and an increase in birth defects, plus chronic heart, lung and kidney disease. While the coal industry has brought $8 billion to the region, West Virginia University researchers demonstrated that the cost of “premature deaths” in Appalachia has totaled $42 billion.

Then, in 2002 “George Dubbya” drove another nail in the coffin of our ancient-most mountain range. He declared that highly toxic mine waste will now be acceptable “fill material” under the Clean Water Act. Hence, fill up them hollers, boys! Full steam ahead!

And that’s why for a decade now, we’ve been catching wind of pain and protests howling out of Appalachia. There are 28.5 billion tons of coal still buried there. Somebody stop these idiots from pillaging and burning it all! Oops — that somebody is us. So in thanksgiving for our own sweet mountains, I invite you to take a stand.

Sources: Appalachian Voices, Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, Kentucky Office of Energy Policy, Mountain Justice, Science, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey