Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Raping Our Earth Mountaintop by Mountaintop

Among the 100 people arrested outside the White House last Monday was climate scientist James Hansen, who issued a statement saying mountaintop removal "destroys historic mountain ranges, poisons water supplies and pollutes the air with coal and rock dust." The devastation it causes to the environment, the towns and the people is immeasurable and cannot be repaired. It is nothing short of earth rape and domestic terrorism. It is man made. You know, the coal mining corporations that are people.

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.

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.
And activists:

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.

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."
And Granny:

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."

And history:
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."

Other reading:

EarthJustice - Stop Mountaintop Removal Mining

Lists of coal impoundment dams:  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


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.




  1. Frodo enthusiastically recommends to everyone who is moved by these lines to read the trilogy by Homer Hickam. "Rocket Boys," Coalwood," and "Skies of Stone" are about the people who grew up in those mountains and who disappeared before our very eyes. You will thank Frodo some day.

  2. Thanks Frodo. I'll put them on my list. I have a very special place in my heart for Appalachia and its people who are as gentle as the terrain. But, if pressed, they can get mighty hard nosed - just like those rocks - and I'm pulling for them.

    If this had been the 60s, the media would have been all over this. Reporters and cameramen would have been sent into the region to film the davastation in action and to interview the people so horrendously affected by this kind of mining.

  3. It's almost overwhelming, seeing this. The rape and pillage of the earth. Maybe it's overload, despair overload that many of us feel?

    War,Katrina.Politics.Haiti.I should be angry, but instead it's one more example of the horrible legacy we present to future generations, and guilt for not being able to make an appreciable difference. I just kinda feel defeated, you know?
    I don't mean despondent. Just, defeated but keeping my head up.
    Great research and presentation, Leslie. I'm sorry I can't offer better comment or insight.

  4. Coal Money + Energy is more important than Mountains + least to republicans. Rape and pillage as always been the privilege of the victor, be it a small mountain village or the whole planet earth.

    Who are the real terrorists here? Ones who kill a few people or ones who kill a whole planet?

  5. Molly Ivins wrote about this manmade plague, including in her book, "Bushwhacked," and others, and in her columns.

    It's hard to believe this is allowed, even given the selfish stupidity of corporate greedmeisters, the influence of lobbyists and the number of supposedly public officials who have sold out to the highest bidders.

    It's equally hard to believe so many in the places where this wildly destructive mining is taking place are ardent supporters of people like Reagan and the double-whammy Bush scourge. And, if Romney, Pawlenty or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is the conservative Republican of choice in 2012, most in the mining-devastated regions will support that laissez-faire candidate too.

  6. Oso: I feel despondent about this as well. This is truly a case of the little people against the big corporations, with backing from the government, and they don't have a chance in hell. In the meantime, this plush, stunningly beautiful region is becoming a big ugly bald spot. That lovely picture on the left at the top is fast becoming the picture on the right.

    JC said: "Rape and pillage has always been the privilege of the victor,"

    Hadn't thought of it that way but you're right, of course. Rape, pillage and plunder - the all-American way.

    SW: It is indeed sad and ironic that these people can't make a distinction between who's doing the screwing and who's not. I'd like to do some research to see how their representatives vote on mining issues.

  7. "I'd like to do some research to see how their representatives vote on mining issues."

    I think you'll find that, with extremely rare exception, their representatives vote with the companies and whatever the companies want — exactly the way Lousiana's congressional delegation and state government, along with those of Texas and Mississippi, are fronting for the oil industry now. They're big on pointing out jobs and state revenues are at stake, which is true.

    What those "honorables" don't go into is how people's health, the environment and, most importantly, their campaign coffers are at stake.

  8. As I read the post and the comments, I composed many comments in my head.

    First, I agree with Oso. I probably would have been better off not reading this, because I am left both depressed and with feelings of inadequacy. Even moreso, I am left with an immoral sense of acceptance – reflecting on man’s inhumanity to man throughout history and even now.

    I agree with S.W. Anderson: the people in the poorest and least educated sections of the country vote Republican and cut their own throats. They are seduced by the same old tried-and-true pre-election “social issues.”

    In the late 60s, there were government regulations in place to protect both the safety and health of the worker in the workplace and the environment. I know because I was in a corporate position to know. What happened to the conscience and the soul of this country?

    Finally, this, dear Leslie, is the most depressing, and I lift it from your comments:

    “If this had been the 60s, the media would have been all over this. Reporters and cameramen would have been sent into the region to film the davastation in action and to interview the people so horrendously affected by this kind of mining.”

    This was, of course, before the media – much like the coal mining industry - became mega-corporations where profit is the bottom line.

    And, of course, the people are more interested in the latest self-destructive shenanigans of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan than any suffering going on in Appalachia.


  9. SW: And they don't go into the fact that if these people don't have their healthy, not only can they not work but the lives of their families are impacted.

    BJ: Sorry I made you depressed. I added those suggestions as to what WE can do after reading Oso's comment. I think the worst thing we can do is ignore it. CBS did report on the rally and NPT has done quite a bit. If I didn't dislike Michael Moore so much (and think he's losing his clout), I think it would make a great docu-movie.

  10. as always Leslie, great work on a very important subject. Like Oso and BJ I am sad and sickened that our country puts profit before the health and well being of her people. We have but one planet and when she's gone she's gone. This kind of devastation to parts of our countryside means nothing to those who don't care one bit about human lives and the environmental issues facing us. Those who use abortion as their number one platform issue need to start thinking about people whose lives are being destroyed on a daily basis by polluting corporate America. It's a monumental task but I hope the people stand strong and win in the's all very sad.

  11. Thanks, Ms Sue. I really feel very strongly about this. They can use our help. Even though most of us don't live in Appalachia I think it's good for our "leaders" to know that the rest of the country cares and that we are watching.

  12. It hasn't been that long ago that Tiny read an article where one coal plant in TN dumped ash into the TN river and had one hell of a mess in that area. Claimed it was accident due to something at the plant. However polluted the TN river water. I have friends who were in the process of moving from Oak Ridge to Kingston when this occured.

    And our politicians think they have to go to other countries to start wars. God knows there's more wars on our own soil to keep many armies engaged 24/7. Will we ever be rid of the greedy! Doesn't appear that we will.

  13. Tiny. What happened in Kingston never should have happened. That was a TVA earthen dam and there had been plenty of warnings that it was about to go. I think people have become hardened to man-made and even natural disasters. If it isn't in their neighborhoods, they don't care.

  14. Eh. Gentle, I don't know about; I originally hail from that area, and they were pretty damned good at shooting each other up. Per capita, the murder rate in southeastern Kentucky is as bad as that in Detroit, or East St. Louis.

    Having said that..... out of sight, out of mind. the last guy who actually gave a damn about Appalachia was Lyndon Johnson.

  15. JR: They lead a hard scrapple life in them thar hills. Anywhere near Somerset? You're right about LBJ but didn't Kennedy get the ball rolling with Vista and going there himself?

  16. tnlib, I wish you had seen a C-SPAN segment I saw about three years ago. Michael Moore received an award and gave a talk at the annual dinner meeting of a progressive group in Detroit. He was dressed in a business suit, neat as a pin from head to toe, and there was almost none of his usual zaniness in what he had to say.

    Moore gave an excellent speech. It was intelligently written, came from the heart and was delivered well. He covered a range of things, from Bush & Co.'s assault on privacy and human rights at home, to war crimes abroad, to the wars, the economy, controlling the news and much more. It left me wishing he'd run for office, because we need more people like him, Al Franken, Alan Grayson, Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders in Congress.

  17. tnlib: You are correct about TVA earthen dam. Tiny didn't remember the name. Thanks for the update on it.

    As for the people in them thar hills voting against their best interests, remember those uneducated are fed a steady diet of Biblical Doctrines of Fear of Hell-Fire-and-Damnation. Does anyone bother to take Truth to them about political issues or do they just benefit and profit from illiteracy that abounds in those areas?

    Having grown up in prosimity to and living in some of those areas, Tiny knows they get very little contact with the world outside their immediate areas. She could tell you lots of stories about them thar parts of the world.

    Some of her first in-laws and her paternal relatives worked in those coal mines. Even today, some of them fear computers, cell phones and other technology like those before them feared electrical conveniences, TVs and telephones. And people in this country thinks education is lacking in only foreign countries!

  18. SW: I wish I had seen that. It's not his zaniness or flamboyance that turn me off as much as his (sometimes) stretching or disregard for the truth. But then there is the old "artistic license" thingy. Maybe I can dig up that interview.

    Tiny: Very interesting. I'd love for you to write about some of this as a guest for my blog.