Hansen joined environmentalists, miners and Appalachian activists to call attention to mountaintop coal mining, which literally means blowing mountains to smithereens to reach coal reserves. The rally, called "Appalachia Rising," was organized by protesters from West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.
In an article first published in Orion Magazine and found on grist (HERE), Erik Reece writes, "Central Appalachia provides much of the country's coal, second only to Wyoming's Powder River Basin. In the United States, 100 tons of coal are extracted every two seconds."
In the name of corporate expedience, coal companies have turned from excavation to simply blasting away the tops of the mountains. To achieve this, they use the same mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel that Timothy McVeigh employed to level the Murrow Building in Oklahoma City -- except each detonation is 10 times as powerful, and thousands of blasts go off each day across central Appalachia. Hundreds of feet of forest, topsoil, and sandstone -- the coal industry calls all of this "overburden" -- are unearthed so bulldozers and front-end loaders can more easily extract the thin seams of rich, bituminous coal that stretch in horizontal layers throughout these mountains.Mother Jones reports:
While topless mountains serve as shocking visual evidence of environmental devastation in Appalachia, it's the waste issue that creates real problems for communities in the region. After the tops of the mountains are blown off, the waste debris dumped in nearby valleys often blocks waterways and causes flooding. The debris includes a number of toxic heavy metals that end up in the water, causing a litany of health problems. Areas close to the blast sites have lower birth weights and higher rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease. A study released earlier this year found an average of 11,000 more premature deaths per 100,000 residents in the counties with the heaviest mining.Not only does mountaintop mining destroy the earth for all eternity, it's devastating impact on humans is even more ominous, says Reece.
. . . an Eastern Kentucky University study found that children in Letcher County, Ky., suffer from an alarmingly high rate of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and shortness of breath -- symptoms of something called blue baby syndrome -- that can all be traced back to sedimentation and dissolved minerals that have drained from mine sites into nearby streams. Long-term effects may include liver, kidney, and spleen failure, bone damage, and cancers of the digestive tract.There's suicide:
Consider the story of Debra and Granville Burke. First the blasting above their house wrecked its foundation. Then the floods came. Four times, they wiped out the Burkes' garden, which the family depended on to get through the winter. Finally, on Christmas morning 2002, Debra Burke took her life. In a letter published in a local paper, her husband wrote: "She left eight letters describing how she loved us all but that our burdens were just getting too much to bear. She had begged for TECO to at least replace our garden, but they just turned their back on her. I look back now and think of all the things I wish I had done differently so that she might still be with us, but mostly I wish that TECO had never started mining above our home."And murder:
The specific injustice that had drawn together a group of activists calling themselves the Mountain Justice Summer movement was the violent death of 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson. At 2:30 in the morning on Aug. 30, 2004, a bulldozer, operating without a permit above the Davidsons' home, dislodged a thousand-pound boulder from a mountaintop-removal site in the town of Appalachia, Va. The boulder rolled 200 feet down the mountain before it crushed to death the sleeping child.And activists:
But Davidson's death is hardly an isolated incident. In West Virginia, 14 people drowned in the last three years because of floods and mudslides caused by mountaintop removal, and in Kentucky, 50 people have been killed and over 500 injured in the last five years by coal trucks, almost all of which were illegally overloaded.
Larry Gibson has lived on Kayford Mountain in W. Va. for over 200 years.
Forty seams of coal lie beneath his 50 acres. Gibson could be a millionaire many times over, but because he refuses to sell, he has been shot at and run off his own road. One of his dogs was shot and another hanged. A month after my visit, someone sabotaged his solar panels. In 2000, Gibson walked out onto his porch one day to find two men dressed in camouflage, approaching with gas cans. They backed away and drove off, but not before they set fire to an empty cabin that belongs to one of Gibson's cousins. This much at least can be said for the West Virginia coal industry: it has perfected the art of intimidation.And Granny:
Gibson knows he isn't safe. "This land is worth $450 million," he told me, "so what kind of chances do I have?" But he hasn't backed down. He travels the country telling his story and has been arrested repeatedly for various acts of civil disobedience. When Gibson talks to student groups, he asks them, "What do you hold so dear that you don't have a price on it? And when somebody comes to take it, what will you do? For me, it's this mountain and the memories I had here as a kid. It was a hard life, but here I was equal to everybody. I didn't know I was poor until I went to the city and people told me I was. Here I was rich."
At a 2006 rally against Massey Energy which was organized by Mountain Justice, gray-haired Julia Bonds told the crowd:
"I'm honored to be here with you. We're an endangered species, we hillbillies. Massey Energy is terrorizing us in Appalachia. Little old ladies in their 70s can't even sit on their porches. They have to cut their grass wearing respirators. That's how these people have to live. The coal companies are the real terrorists in America. And we're going to expose them for the murdering, lying thieves that they are."And children:
In 2005, Mountain Justice volunteers went door-to-door in Rock Creek, W. Va. in an "effort to identify citizens' concerns and possibly locate cancer clusters."
The school, a small brick building, sits almost directly beneath a Massey Energy subsidiary's processing plant where coal is washed and stored. Coal dust settles like pollen over the playground. Nearly 3 billion gallons of coal slurry, which contains extremely high levels of mercury, cadmium, and nickel, are stored behind a 385-foot-high earthen dam right above the school.In 1972, a similar coal impoundment damn collapsed in W. Va., killing 125 people, writes Reece."
The history of resource exploitation in Appalachia, like the history of racial oppression in the South, follows a sinister logic -- keep people poor and scared so that they remain powerless. In the 19th century, mountain families were actually doing fairly well farming rich bottomlands. But populations grew, farms were subdivided, and then northern coal and steel companies started buying up much of the land, hungry for the resources that lay below. By the time the railroads reached headwater hollows like McRoberts, Ky., men had little choice but to sell their labor cheaply, live in company towns, and shop in overpriced company stores. "Though he might revert on occasion to his ancestral agriculture," wrote coal field historian Harry Caudill, "he would never again free himself from dependence upon his new overlords." In nearly every county across central Appalachia, King Coal had gained control of the economy, the local government, and the land.Death and destruction are not factored into the price of coal.
Last year (2005), American power plants burned over a billion tons of coal, accounting for over 50 percent of this country's electricity use. In Kentucky, 80 percent of the harvested coal is sold and shipped to 22 other states. Yet it is the people of Appalachia who pay the highest price for the rest of the country's cheap energy -- through contaminated water, flooding, cracked foundations and wells, bronchial problems related to breathing coal dust, and roads that have been torn up and turned deadly by speeding coal trucks. Why should large cities like Phoenix and Detroit get the coal but be held accountable for none of the environmental consequences of its extraction? And why is a Tampa-based energy company -- or Peabody Coal in St. Louis, or Massey Energy in Richmond, Va. -- allowed to destroy communities throughout Appalachia? As my friend and teacher the late Guy Davenport once wrote, "Distance negates responsibility."
EarthJustice - Stop Mountaintop Removal Mining
Lists of coal impoundment dams: coalimpoundment.org and EPA
Natural Resources Defence Counsel (NRDC) has campaigned vigorously against mountaintop mining. This link is to their list of articles on the travesty I've only touched on. HERE
WHAT WE CAN DO:
WE can write letters to the editors of our local papers.
WE can bring attention to it on our blogs.
WE can sign petitions sponsored by NRDC and other organizations.
WE can donate to NRDC and AppalachiaRising.
WE can write and email our congressional representatives on a regular basis.
WE can write and email the White House.
WHAT WE CANNOT DO: