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Appalachian Apocalypse

Mining operations like this one on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, work around the clock; this lonely stand of trees disappeared in less than a day.

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.

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Erik Reece (Appalachian Apocalypse) teaches writing at the University of Kentucky. Lost Mountain (Riverhead), his book about mountaintop removal mining, was based on his Harper's cover story, which won the 2005 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished E... READ MORE >

Thanks--Appalachian destruction gets far too little coverage in the environmental press

(Huntington WV native, now Evanston IL)

And to think people complain about wind turbines on top of mountains! Is this the alternative those against wind energy are seeking????

I saw this approach used for goldmining in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado ten years ago and its a sad disgusting image I'll never forget. After driving an hour or so through gorgeous forest it was a profound shock to stumble upon a completely stripped summit surrounded by chain link fencing with warning signs of toxic hazard within. At a lower elevation were strangely colored storage ponds further disfiguring the landscape. I believe I read of the responsible company evading lawsuits through mergers and name changes, re-emerging to develop a similiar operation bordering on Yellowstone Park. It takes a mountain of ignorance to permit this to transpire.