20 February 2012
Coal Corporations: Destroying Appalachia
Just outside Appalachia, Virginia, “in the middle of the night, toddler Jeremy Davidson was crushed in his bed and killed by a boulder that was knocked down the mountainside from a road leading to a ridgetop surface mine by a bulldozer operating without the proper permits. The A&G Coal Corporation was cited for negligence and fined fifteen thousand dollars; it appealed the fine.” (Butler and Wuerthner 46) Also, in one West Virginia community, “Larry Gibson noticed heavy bulldozing activity from surface-mining operations right next to a family cemetery. He rushed to report the trespass to local officials, and they responded by blocking the access of family members to the graveyard.” (Butler and Wuerthner 45)
Sadly, these stories are just a small example of the indifference of the coal companies to the suffering of the communities in Appalachia. This suffering is caused by the mountaintop-removal mining operations coal companies continue to create, even when faced with lots of evidence of how bad it is for everyone involved. Mountaintop-removal mining not only destroys the unique mountain environment, but also destroys the lives of people living around the mining operation.
Mountaintop-removal, a form of strip-mining mostly used in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee, begins by, of course, removing the mountain. First, the trees are clear-cut for lumber or simply scraped away and burned (Butler and Wuerthner 25). Then, the mountain is blown up, layer by layer, and the rubble is usually pushed into the valleys below, covering streams and valuable land. The coal is then extracted using huge machines. After the all the coal has been extracted, the coal is washed to rid it of impurities and sent off for processing. The liquid waste leftover is called “coal sludge” or “coal slurry” and contains impurities, coal dust, and the chemical agents used in the washing process. Instead of disposing of this waste safely, the coal slurry is disposed of by storing it in “vast, unlined lagoons or surface impoundments …” (Butler and Wuerthner 34). These impoundments have a high risk of breaking and flooding valleys and old mines, destroying homes and polluting the water sources. Finally, the mined land is “reclaimed”. Mine operators are legally required to make the land into something that can be used, usually for commercial or public use. Sadly, this usually means, “a biological wasteland compared to the native forest – generally a thin green sheen of exotic grass growing on compacted rubble” (Butler and Wuerthner 27).
That “native forest “ is one of the biodiversity hotspots in the U.S. Over 100,000 species of plants and animals are found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone (Butler and Wuerthner 3). The Clinch River in northeastern Tennessee is home to more aquatic biodiversity than almost any other river on Earth. That river is now “slowly choking to death on mining-related sediment” (Butler and Wuerthner 57). Also, 135 rare, threatened, and endangered species in eastern Kentucky and 110 in West Virginia have been impacted by mountaintop-removal operations (Butler and Wuerthner 57). We cannot afford to lose these mountains. They are part of one of the unique ecosystems in the world where many different species that would not normally be found together, including northern species such as red spruce and sugar maple trees and southern species such as oak and hickory trees, can exist in the same region.
Not only is the biodiversity of Appalachia being destroyed, but also the streams that provide clean water for communities are being polluted. A study by the EPA showed that more than 1,200 miles of streams had been buried or mined-over between 1992 and 2002 alone (United States, 4). These streams are buried under the rubble, or “spoil”, that is blasted off the mountain. Opponents of mountaintop-removal mining have argued that this spoil is a violation of the Clean Water Act. However, “since a 2002 Bush administration rule change freeing coal operators from the pesky provision in the Clean Water Act that prohibits ‘waste’ from being dumped into the nation’s waterways, the spoil that is pushed into the valleys below is no longer ‘waste’, but ‘fill’”(Butler and Wuerthner 49). The coal corporations have a lot of influence with top officials and can easily have legislation changed for their benefit.
Another side effect of mountaintop-removal is deforestation. When the coal companies scrape away the trees, they also scrape away the precious topsoil. Without the topsoil, the “reclaimed” sites cannot be restored to their former state. This is not just bad for the environment, but it is also costs money. “In West Virginia alone, deforestation related to [mountaintop-removal] operations is estimated to have cost the state $2.6 billion in lost ecological services [nutrient cycling, climate regulation, and watershed stability], not including the direct value of the timber” (Butler and Wuerthner 62).
Mountaintop-removal is devastating to the environment, and it is equally devastating to Appalachian communities. It greatly affects the economy, health, and general well-being of any people living around the mining sites. High poverty rates are directly related to the amount of mountaintop-removal mining in the area. Many people in the region used to work as miners, but increased mechanization and a shift toward surface mining eliminated more than six hundred thousand mining jobs (Butler and Wuerthner 72). Many people argue that the communities depend on coal mining jobs, but this just is not true. Even if it was true that the Appalachian economy depended on coal, as Denise Giardina said, “Destructive jobs should never be countenanced, much less supported by our so-called business and labor leaders. What is next? Will the Chamber of Commerce support the jobs created by drug dealers? After all, drug dealers have families to feed.” (qtd in Butler and Wuerthner 203).
The health problems caused by the coal dust and toxins in the air and water produced by surface mining are numerous. A main problem is pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, which is contracted from breathing coal dust. It used to be a very common problem among miners, but now it mostly occurs in local residents (Butler and Wuerthner 68). The residents’ water supplies, mostly wells and surface water, are filled with toxins from coal processing plants, which are known to cause birth defects and other health problems.
Coal trucks are another thing that plagues the communities. From 2000 to 2004, there were more than seven hundred accidents involving coal trucks in Kentucky alone. In those accidents, fifty-three people died and more than five hundred were injured (Butler and Wuerthner 31). Local children are forced to dodge coal trucks while trick-or-treating and they cannot play soccer or kickball in the street anymore because of the coal trucks speeding down the street. Coal trucks “weaken bridges, damage roads, and overturn and spill their contents into streams and roadways…” (Butler and Wuerthner 173).
The deforestation and the valley fills made by the mining operations greatly increase the risk of flash floods. The coal corporations argue that the floods are “acts of God”, but local residents know differently. “People living below mountaintop-removal mines begin to live in constant fear during rainy weather; it is not uncommon for mothers to put their children to bed fully clothed in case they need to flee in the night from a wall of water roaring down the hollow” (Butler and Wuerthner 70). Since 2001 there have been at least seven periods of severe flash flooding in Appalachia that can be linked to increased runoff from mountaintop-removal sites and other strip-mining operations. A dozen people have died during these “unnatural disasters” (Butler and Wuerthner 59).
If mountaintop-removal is so harmful, why are corporations allowed to continue this process? The answer is simple: we have allowed them to. They have figured out ways to get around all the legislative restrictions lawmakers have imposed, they assure people living near the mines that they are working with the community’s best interests in mind, their money gives them a lot of power with top officials, and they try to pacify activists with promises of “clean coal” and cheap coal. We have not completely halted the corporations’ mining activities, and therefore they keep getting around the limits placed on them.
Many people who think coal is good for Appalachia argue for “clean and cheap coal”. There is no such thing. Judy Bonds, a West Virginia activist, sums up the argument against clean coal very well, “Even if the power companies could get marshmallows to come out of the smokestacks, if you can’t dig it clean, you can’t burn it clean. They cannot dig the coal cleanly in Appalachia by blowing the tops off of mountains, covering up the streams, and polluting our communities” (qtd in Butler and Wuerthner 175). Also, coal is only cheap because, “it takes few workers (minimizes labor costs), because demand for coal is strong, and because its high environmental and social costs are not internalized by the industry” (Butler and Wuerthner 70).
Coal corporations have committed many crimes over the years, but one that sticks out is the 2000 coal slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky. A coal sludge impoundment failed, sending three hundred million gallons of thick, tarry coal waste into the Big Sandy River. Approximately 1.6 million fish were killed and more than twenty-seven thousand people had their public and private water supplies contaminated. Some government officials described the spill as probably the worst environmental disaster in the history of the Southeast (Butler and Wuerthner 45). According to one source, “Massey Energy, the company responsible for the spill … has avoided significant consequences for the disaster. Massey corporate executives have direct access and influence with top officials of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and other government agencies. According to Common Cause, Massey Energy contributed $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee while it was being investigated for the slurry spill. Ultimately, Massey Energy was fined just $5,600 …” (Butler and Wuerthner 59). This is just one example of the coal corporations’ influence in politics and their indifference to the plight of the people who were affected by this disaster.
There are many people and organizations working to stop mountaintop-removal. It is not an impossible task. In fact, mountaintop-removal mines in Appalachia are estimated to produce just 5 to 10 percent of total U.S. coal production, and generate less than 4 percent of our electricity – an amount that could be eliminated from the energy mix by small gains in energy efficiency and conservation (Butler and Wuerthner 23). Also, the Appalachian economy could be largely improved by the jobs and income generated by ecological restoration, sustainable forestry, renewable energy, and ecotourism (Butler and Wuerthner 61). Researchers are also working on better reclamation of mined lands. Coal corporations and corporations in general, could thwarted in their schemes by banning them from the political sphere, revoking corporate constitutional rights, and revoking corporations’ charters when they commit crimes (Nace 224). There are many grassroots organizations fighting corporate influence to put legislation in place to protect the remaining mountains and streams. The people and the land they live on need outside help, they cannot fight the coal corporations alone. By supporting these organizations and calling for corporate restraints, Appalachia can be saved.
Butler, Tom, and George Wuerthner, eds. Plundering Appalachia: The Tragedy of Mountaintop-Removal Coal Mining. San Rafael, CA: Earth Aware, 2009. Print.
Nace, Ted. Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy. Updated ed. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005. Print.
United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fills in Appalachia Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. Philadelphia, PA: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Region 3, 2005. United States Environmental Protection Agency. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.