Down in Inez, Kentucky, right on the West Virginia border, a high school English teacher named Mick McCoy recently put up a large wooden sign beside his cucumber patch. On it, a light blue fog hovers above steep, verdant mountains. The message reads: GOD WAS WRONG. SUPPORT MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL.
Mountaintop removal -- the name says it all -- is the most ruthless method yet found to extract coal as quickly and as cheaply as possible. That it happens at all is an outrage. That it happens in one of North America's most biologically diverse ecosystems is heartbreaking. The mixed mesophytic forests of central Appalachia are home to more than 60 species of tree, which are in turn home to more than 250 different songbirds. Unfortunately, two-thirds of those warblers are in decline, largely because their habitat is being cleared by bulldozers and buried with explosives.
Imagine central Appalachia as a bombing range. McCoy and his family sit at the bull's-eye. All around them, Massey Energy of Richmond, Virginia, and its many subsidiaries are mixing ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (think Timothy McVeigh) and setting off thousands of blasts each day. The shock waves ruin family wells and crack the foundations and walls of houses.
The coal in the Appalachian Mountains is hard to extract because it is buried under layers of shale and sandstone hundreds of feet thick. A few decades ago, strip miners would cut along the edge of a ridge side, then auger into a coal seam. But today, with bigger machines and little moral or regulatory constraint, coal operators simply blast away the entire mountaintop -- its forests, capstones, and topsoil -- so they can scrape out thin seams of low-sulfur coal. Nearly everything else is dumped into the valleys below, often burying pristine headwater streams. The resulting "valley fills" create the largest man-made earthen structures in the country -- huge treeless funnels that let mud and rainwater wash unimpeded through low-lying communities all across central Appalachia. The town of McRoberts, Kentucky, recently endured three "100-year floods" in 10 days. The water filled homes and carried away carports. When TECO Energy of Tampa, Florida, had leveled every peak around the community, it took the coal, took the profits, and left the people of McRoberts with crumbling homes, terrible roads, and a constant fear of being washed away in one's sleep.