Winds of Change Newsletter, March 2009 See sidebar for table of contents
Mining the Mountains
by John McQuaid, excerpted from January 2009 Smithsonian magazine
In Ansted, West Virginia, the conflict over mountaintop removal has taken on special urgency because its about two competing visions for Appalachias future: coal mining, West Virginias most hallowed industry, and tourism, its most promising emerging business, which is growing at about three times the rate of the mining industry statewide.
The town and its mining site lie between two National Park Service recreational areas, along the Gauley and New rivers, about ten miles apart. The New River Gorge Bridge, a span 900 feet above the water and perhaps West Virginias best-known landmark, is just 11 miles by car from Ansted. Hawks Nest State Park is nearby. Rafting, camping and, one day a year, parachuting from the New River Bridge draw hundreds of thousands of people to the area annually.
Mayor Pete Hobbs is Ansteds top tourism booster. "Were hoping to build a trail system to connect two national rivers together, and wed be at the center of that hunting, fishing, biking, hiking trails. The town has embraced that," Hobbs told me in his office, which is festooned with trail and park maps. What happens if the peak overlooking Ansted becomes even more of a mountaintop removal site? "A lot of this will be lost"
Ive reported on devastation around the world from natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, to wars in Central America and the Middle East. But in the sheer audacity of its destruction, mountaintop coal removal is the most shocking thing Ive ever seen.
Entering a mountaintop site is like crossing into a war zone. One day as I walked near a site on Kayford Mountain, about 20 miles southwest of Ansted, along a dirt road owned by a citizen who declined to lease to the mining companies, a thunderous boom rattled the ground. A plume of yellow smoke rose into the sky, spread out and settled over me, giving the bare trees and the chasm beyond the eerie cast of a battlefield.
"We are sitting in the most productive and diverse temperate hardwood forest on the planet," said Ben Stout, a biologist at West Virginias Wheeling Jesuit University "There are more kinds of organisms living in the southern Appalachians than in any other forest ecosystem in the world. We have more salamander species than any place on the planet. We have Neotropical migratory birds that come back here to rest and nest."
Scientists say they have little data on the effects of mountaintop coal mining on public health. Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, and a colleague, Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, analyzed mortality rates near mining-industry sites in West Virginia, including underground, mountaintop and processing facilities.
After adjusting for other factors, including poverty and occupational illness, they found statistically significant elevations in deaths for chronic lung, heart and kidney disease as well as lung and digestive-system cancers. Overall cancer mortality was also elevated. Hendryx stresses that the information is preliminary. "It doesnt prove that pollution from the mining industry is a cause of the elevated mortality," he says, but it appears to be a factor.
Eighty-year-old Jim Foster joined a group of local residents and the Huntington, West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in a federal lawsuit to block the Roach Branch valley fill site in Boone County, on the grounds that the environmental impacts hadnt been adequately assessed. They won the first round when Judge Robert Chambers issued a temporary restraining order against the valley fills. The coal company is appealing the decision.
Foster says he puts up with a daily barrage of irritations from nearby mountaintop removal projects. "Practically every day, our house is shook by the violent tremors caused by these blasts," he said, gesturing from his easy chair. "The one up there you can see it from my window here Ive watched it as they tore that down. Before they started on it, it was beautiful twin peaks there, it was absolutely beautiful. And to look out and see the destruction going on day to day like it has, and see that mountain disappear, each day more of it being gone to me that really, really hurts."
Around mining sites, tensions run high. In Twilight, a Boone County hamlet situated among three mountaintop sites, Mike Workman and his next-door neighbor, another retired miner named Richard Lee White, say they have battled constantly with one nearby operation.
Workman also remembers when a coal slurry impoundment failed in 2001, sending water and sludge pouring through a hollow onto Route 26. "When it broke loose it come down, and my daughter lived at the mouth of it. The water was plumb up in her house past her windows, and I had to take a four-wheel-drive truck to get her and her kids. And my house down here, [the flood] destroyed it."
West Virginias political establishment has been unwavering in its support for the coal industry.
Without such backing, mountaintop removal would not be possible, because federal environmental laws would prohibit it, says Jack Spadaro, a former federal mining regulator and a critic of the industry. "There is not a legal mountaintop mining operation in Appalachia," he says. "There literally is not one in full compliance with the law."
In Ansted, residents say they cant even be sure whats coming next because the coal company doesnt explain its plans. "They will seek permits on small plots, 100- to 300-acre parcels," said Mayor Hobbs. "My sense is, we should have a right to look at that long-range plan for 20,000 acres."
In 2007, the town beat back an attempt to run big logging and coal trucks through town. "This is a residential area this is not an industrial area," says Katheryne Hoffman, who lives at the edge of town. "We managed to get that temporarily stopped but then they still got the [mining] permit, which means they will begin to bring the coal through somewhere, and itll be the path of least resistance. Communities have to fight for their lives to get this stopped."
Read the full article: www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/36176804.html.
See page 16 for more on threats to Gauley Mtn.