Thursday, November 20, 2008
Wastelands R Us
A small group of students and professors hiked through a remote section of woods nestled in a slight depression in the mountaintop, quiet winter woods surrounding us as far as the eye could see. Through the trees we could see the tops of mountains in the distance, some of them looking flatter than one might expect, but this small area of natural beauty felt safe, protected, remote from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Then we walked up a steep rise to a point where the surrounding mountains became visible. No longer protected from the bitterly cold wind, we found our senses assaulted by the weather and our souls assaulted by the devastation surrounding us. Behind us was a safe and serene haven of natural beauty; before us was a vast unnatural site drained of color and life.
This is what mountaintop removal mining looks like, and it's a sight not available to many people. Located a mere 45-minute drive from Charleston, West Viriginia, Kayford Mountain might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Mountaintop removal mining is practiced far from the prying eyes of a public so addicted to coal power that we don't care that this method of mining recovers only a tiny percentage of the coal from the area--while transforming wilderness areas and inhabited hollows into land on which nothing can grow or live.
On a snowy day in November we visited Larry Gibson on 50 acres of land his family has owned for more than 200 years, property now surrounded by 7500 acres of mountaintop removal mining sites. The mountaintops are sheered off and the rubble dumped in hollows, polluting creeks and other water sources with arsenic and mercury while removing wildlife habitat and acres upon acres of trees, mushrooms, wildflowers, and other living things, all sacrificed to feed our national addiction to cheap energy.
According to a 2007 New York Times article, "From 1985 to 2001, 724 miles of streams were buried under mining waste," and "If current practices continue, another 724 river miles will be buried by 2018." There's no hope of recovering a stream buried under millions of tons of polluting rubble; mountaintop removal chews up and spits out the land, leaving it uninhabitable and incapable of reclamation.
We visited on a Sunday when Massey Energy's mining operations were suspended, but Gibson described the relentless noise of constant explosions that make his small cabin shake, explosions that sometimes send debris and rocks as big as cars tumbling onto his property. He described the coal trucks that barrel along his gravel road taking thousands of dollars' worth of coal from the area every day. "Look at the houses you pass by on your way out of here," he said. "Does it look like any of that money is staying here?"
The answer is no: it looks as if mountaintop removal mining is removing everything of value from the region and leaving a vast wasteland in its wake. If wastelands are what we want, then mountaintop removal ought to be encouraged; otherwise, it has to stop. But how?
We couldn't look at the view from Kayford Mountain for long: the wind was too cold and the sight too appalling--we couldn't quite wrap our minds around the enormity of the devastation. But one thing I'm sure of: it doesn't take an expert to look at Kayford Mountain and conclude that what's happening here is just plain wrong.