All posts by Bo Webb

Moving Mountains – undermining the coal industry

The people of Appalachia need your help. Katuah Earth First!, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Mountain Justice, and Coal River Mountain Watch are calling on all residents of Appalachia, traveling activists, ex-Appalachians, and concerned human rights and environmental activists to join us in defending the world’s most productive and biodiverse temperate forest ecosystems. In the traditions of Freedom Summer and Redwood Summer, we will be using publicity campaigns, mass demonstrations, and direct action to shut down King Coal during the summer of 2005 by stopping mountain top removal dead in its tracks.

Most Americans have never heard the words “mountain range removal/mountain top removal” It’s the dirty little secret that the U.S. government wants to keep hidden from the eyes of America, and the world. There is no better example of a human catastrophe linked to environmental destruction than life in the coal fields of Appalachia.

What is mountain top removal? It starts with the removal of all vegetation. Trees are bulldozed over and pushed into the valleys to be burned. Huge access roads are then built in order to bring in mammoth earth moving equipment. This alone requires much blasting, but once the equipment is in place, the real horror begins. Holes are drilled in the ground, and then packed with high explosives. Part of the mountain is then literally blown away.

Next come the giant earth movers (GEM) that dump all that is not coal (called overburden) into nearby valleys, burying mountain streams with pulverized rock, iron, copper, lead, chromium, mercury, and many other heavy metals that were once buried deep in the earth. Next, the coal is removed and sent down the mountain by beltline. The blasting and mutilation continue until all seams of coal are extracted, sometimes taking off 900 feet or more of the mountain, and creating huge valley fills above the homes of us who live there. What used to be rich topsoil is either incinerated or buried deep beneath heaps of blasted rock. The ecosystem of the mountain is destroyed forever.

The coal that is extracted has to be cleaned at the preparation plant before shipping. The coal goes into a gigantic chemically treated cleaning tank. This process removes impurities including mercury, arsenic, and many other toxins. The sludge generated from this cleaning process settles in the bottom of the tank and is then pumped back up the mountain and put into huge toxic sludge lakes confined by an earthen dam. The cleaned coal is then loaded into train cars or coal trucks and sprayed with a chemical binding agent in order to keep the coal dust down on the way to market.

Obviously, the environmental impact to plants, trees, and wildlife is enormous. But what about the impact on the human species?

The coal industry portrays opponents of mountain top removal as extremists who care more about birds, bats, and bullfrogs than they do about people. The coal industry lies. Appalachian PEOPLE — individuals, families, communities, and an entire culture — suffer the coal barons’ abuses in the U.S.’s mad lust for cheap, dirty fossil fuel. The coal industry and the media portray Appalachians as ignorant, backward, inbred hillbillies who are completely undeserving of the mountains in which they live. By dehumanizing the mountain residents, the coal industry uses the same tactics used by all colonial powers to justify robbing, displacing, and massacring the people of Appalachia. The struggle in Appalachia with the coal barons has been ongoing since the late 1800’s.

Those of us living in the coal fields exist in a constant state of terror. Since there is neither vegetation nor topsoil on the mountain to absorb the rainfall, we live in fear when it rains. During a rainstorm, our children go to bed fully clothed, plotting escape routes in case we have to flee in the middle of the night.

We have had people swept away in mud slides and water tides, pouring down from mountain top removal sites. Yet, the coal companies have the audacity to call these events, “acts of God.” In October of 2000, a sludge dam in Inez, Kentucky failed. Three hundred ten million gallons of toxic sludge spilled into Tug Fork of The Big Sandy River, destroying all aquatic life and poisoning ground water and soil for 110 miles downstream. These earthen dams will fail again. On the Coal River in southern West Virginia, there are four such dams pointed directly at communities and schools. All of them hold over two billion gallons of toxic sludge each. One of them, known as the Brushy Fork impoundment is the largest sludge dam in the United States. It currently contains 7 billion gallons of sludge and it is scheduled to soon grow to over 9 billion gallons. If it fails, all life will most likely be lost for 40 miles downstream. A smaller dam than this one caused the 1972 Buffalo Creek, West Virginia disaster, in which 127 residents were killed.

Despite all the hardship caused by mining, the people of Appalachia keep hanging on. They’re hoping for better days ahead or they’re just too stubborn to leave the land that has been in their families for eight or nine generations. Meanwhile, the coal industry convinces the masses that Appalachia must be leveled in order to provide employment and national security. Yet, as coal production has risen, coal employment in West Virginia has dropped nearly 75% in the last 20 years, due in large part to mountain top removal (source: WV Coal Association). Mountain top removal employs a handful of blasters and heavy equipment operators — a fraction of the numbers needed for underground mining. The ongoing exodus from West Virginia has resulted in closed schools, loss of congressional representation, and loss of hope for many.

A culture that allows these abuses will allow any abuse. We are being forced off our land and our mountain communities are being destroyed. Our mountains and valleys are being turned into a sacrifice zone for cheap electricity. Our Appalachian politicians ignore the pleas of their constituents while their pockets are lined with coal money. Our teachers, small business operators, and press are intimidated into silence. And the nation continues to waste energy by the megaton while coal companies and mountain top removal threaten to end our existence forever, putting the finishing touches to a long-standing cultural genocide.

To help, please contact The Mountain Justice Summer Coalition at: mountainjusticesummer@hushmail.com or call (976) 456-2345