Those who profit from mountaintop removal often justify the practice by claiming it is good for the United States. Take Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, who at his pro-mountaintop removal labor day extravaganza–called the “Friends of America Rally”–literally dressed in the American flag and proclaimed that the EPA’s increasing concern about strip-mining put “America itself” at risk. According to Blankenship and others, because coal companies can cheaply extract coal by simply blowing up the mountains that shelter it rather than paying a large workforce to mine it, they can keep the price of energy low enough so that Americans can afford to power their great cities, factories, and homes.
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Against the overwhelming evidence (including EPA studies) and down-right commonsense that mountaintop removal coal quarrying (formerly known as “mining”) had very harmful effects on ecosystems, the coal industry and its government could find shelter behind a scientific institution which said otherwise. And though alone in the wilderness, this shelter seemed all the more sturdy since it was none other than the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the very agency whose members had as a primary duty to diligently guard against any intrusion which would harm the environment. As head of the DEP, Randy Huffman’s contestation that mountaintop removal was benign seemed like the voice of Zeno’s reason, assuring us that we have been manipulated by our senses, that the degradation we see is only a chimera, that the arrow really doesn’t move.
The social harm caused by coal is enormous.
Of course there is the obvious horror of mountaintop removal. I once led a discussion with coalfield residents in which we brainstormed about 100 of its horrible effects, ranging from the disappearance of wildlife to the boulders that were crashing in nearby homes.
Fourteen MORE activists were arrested today in an act of civil disobedience to stop mountaintop removal “mining” in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia.
Four of the protesters attempted to scale a 20 story dragline and unfurl a banner. While high in the air, Massey Scabs (non-unionized mtr workers employed by Massey Energy) and Boone County Sheriff deputies attempted to rattle the tower. A fall from such heights would mean serious injury or death.
At 1 a.m. this morning, an earthen dam holding back a pond of coal-ash collapsed, and a frigid flow of toxic slurry destroyed 15 homes in the small community of Harriman, Tennessee. The so-called “retainment” dam was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a place to dump poisonous ash left after they burn coal for electricity.
According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “Coal ash is composed primarily of oxides of silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium, arsenic, mercury, and sulfur plus small quantities of uranium and thorium (my emphasis).” Needless to say, the long term health and environmental impacts of TVA’s pollution will be enormous.
Coal-ash ponds are a little-known but major hazard of coal-fired power plants. And wherever these plants are built, hundreds of acres are sacrificed to be the industrial dump site. Unfortunately, ash containment ponds are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lakes of sludge that threaten Appalachian communties. In fact, the ash-ponds are mud puddles compared to the huge reservoirs that loom above “clean-coal” processing plants.
There is a tragedy taking place in the hills of Appalachia. Mountain top removal coal mining has turned 500 thousand acres of rugged grandeur into barren moonscapes, buried over 1,000 miles of head-water streams, poisoned the air and water, and has deracinated thousands by eliminating jobs or simply making homeplaces uninhabitable. Unfortunately, mountain top removal is only a symptom of a much deeper and graver problem. For the people that remain in the coalfields, there is a constant and harrowing recognition of their precariousness. The choices seem clear enough: abet the coal industry in the destruction of the land or be financially destroyed. Continue reading