The Government Sanctioned Bombing of Appalachia
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On a calm, clear morning in the forested mountains of southern West Virginia, 12-year-old Chrystal Gunnoe played outdoors in the green mountain valley where her family has lived for hundreds of years. It was Veteran's Day and a school holiday. Chrystal's mother, Maria Gunnoe, 38, was inside when she heard her daughter yell for help.
Gunnoe rushed outside to find Chrystal coming towards her. Chrystal was coughing and struggling to breath, running from a strange-looking cloud that was moving down the valley and headed towards their house. Gunnoe would later learn the strange cloud came from something known as a "slow burning blast" -- an explosion set at the coal mine above her home that failed to ignite and instead burned slowly, releasing a wet toxic cloud of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide.
Gunnoe lives in Bob White, W.Va., where coal companies have become increasingly unfriendly neighbors. Her home is surrounded by thousands of acres where a radically destructive type of coal mining is practiced -- mountaintop removal/valley fill (MTR) coal mining -- and it's turning Maria Gunnoe's life upside down.
In the weeks following, Chrystal suffered from a bronchial infection, a consistent cough, nose bleeds and bouts of painful breathing. Her mother, who was also exposed, "had sores on the inside of [her] nose," she said. "First they take our land, then the water, now the air," fumed Gunnoe who lives in Boone County, W.Va.'s top coal-yielding county, and the epicenter of Appalachian coal extraction, where the dirty business of mining, processing and hauling coal is the main meal-ticket in town.
Coal mining dominates the lives of the people in the remote, coal-rich mountain communities of West Virginia, where coal operators like Massey Energy are waging a remorseless campaign to extract all the coal they can, as fast as they can, before coal is legislated into the past and President Bush is out of office.
Out-of-state coal operators reap billions in profits every year, while residents of southern West Virginia remain among the poorest in the nation. In the coal fields, the imbalance is amplified: while Boone county produces the most coal in the state, 20 percent of its residents languish below the poverty line without sufficient income to achieve an adequate standard of living.
Massey Energy Co., the largest coal producer in Appalachia, grossed $1.78 billion in revenue on coal sales of 42.3 million tons in 2005, while residents have toy drives for the kids around the holidays and often rely on free medical care administered by a global traveling clinic unit that comes around once a year.
West Virginia has always been a coal state, and the coal industry has had unfettered access to the state's low-sulfur coal since mining began in earnest in the late 19th century. In the early days, underground coal miners used pick axes to dig out coal and put it in wooden buggies drawn by mules. Today, coal mining is highly mechanized, using a few men and enormous machines the size of skyscrapers to take the tops off mountains in order to get the increasingly harder-to-reach coal.
Pure greed drives the coal operators to rape and pillage Appalachia for profit. But mountain communities are standing up against King Coal -- lawsuits, citizen protests and national lobbying efforts are bringing the voices of the oppressed Appalachians to the nation.
Working within the system, citizen activist groups have garnered widespread support for the restoration of legislation that was written to protect our waterways -- legislation that the Bush administration has proactively maligned since he came into office.
When King Coal hits home
The Gunnoe home-place sits on about 24 acres in a beautiful mountain hollow, surrounded by deciduous forest. Their family-built home sits on a manicured lawn, nestled along the valley slope. But their home and health are in serious peril. Since 2001, seven floods have taken almost five acres of Gunnoe's family farm; two vehicular access bridges have been washed away forcing the family to cross a rickety bridge, then active railroad tracks to get into their house; and their well water has been so contaminated that Gunnoe now must spend $250 per month on bottled water.
Big Branch Creek, the headwater stream that flows from the mountains through her property, is now termed a "National Pollution Discharge Elimination System" stream by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). "There is no enforcement in Big Branch hollow," said Gunnoe.
All this damage and heartache has been the result of mountaintop removal/valley fill (MTR) coal mining, a highly mechanized process of a coal extraction that has gained favor with Appalachian coal operators over the last two and a half decades. With this method, massive machines are able to harvest coal in remote mountain ridge regions traditionally considered inaccessible to coal mining operations.
The first step in MTR coal mining is to clear-cut the forested peaks of valuable hardwood trees. The trees are bulldozed into the valleys below and/or burned. Next, machines push tons of earth -- the blasted mountaintops or "overburden" in mining parlance -- into the valleys below to form valley fills. These decapitated mountain peaks are being used to build more than 4,000 valley fills in the state of West Virginia.
Once the first layer of rock is exposed, massive blasting stages are drilled and filled with explosives. Three million pounds of explosives are used every day in West Virginia alone. Layer by layer, mountains are blasted away, revealing seams of rich, low-sulfur coal, found in horizontal layers like the icing between cake layers. The coal is removed by giant earth moving machines called draglines, which replace the labor of hundreds of men and cost between $50 million and $100 million each.
MTR is big business requiring copious amounts of capital and very few coal miners. Since the onset and legislative streamlining of MTR permitting, the traditional underground coal miner work force in West Virginia has plummeted. The number of men mining coal underground currently hovers around 12,000 employees, and in July 2007, sank to a mere 5,475 underground coal miners. according to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
MTR coal mining is eliminating jobs and killing Appalachia: taking down the mountains, burying streams, dirtying the air and devastating every living thing in its path. Entire communities, still vividly alive in the memories of the local people, have been obliterated, because they stood on top of vast coal reserves.
Systematic attacks on such communities have leveled mountain hamlets like Twilight, Cazy, Laurel, Blair and hundreds of others. Towns, communities and family cemeteries have been burned, bulldozed and buried because they stood in the path of King Coal.
MTR coal extraction not only annihilates some of the most biologically diverse temperate hardwood forest habitat in the world, but it also destroys and displaces entire human communities, destroying the unique mountain culture of West Virginia. Many Appalachian families have continued to live on the same land since the late 1700s.
Residents want to retain their home-places, their heritage. Mountain communities have an extraordinary relationship with the land and all that it provides -- visually, physically and spiritually. Many have fought to the last moment before they are forced from their homes by blasting, flooding and/or illness. Often, by the time the coal mining becomes a threat to a community, families find it impossible to move: Their homes and land have been rendered worthless, and they simply cannot afford to leave.
Mary Miller of Sylvester, W.Va., a retired postmaster, has seen her fine two-story brick home depreciate in value to a mere fraction of its original worth because of a coal dust-spewing Massey Energy-owned coal processing plant that moved into the once idyllic town of Sylvester in the early '80s. No one wants to leave. Those who remain face life-threatening problems, including contamination of drinking water, damage to homes from blasting, severe flooding, the threat of coal sludge impoundment failures, and breathing problems related to blasting. Many people simply have no choice -- they are forced to take a stand.
Domination of the coal fields by the coal industry is plainly visible while driving through Appalachia. From southwestern West Virginia's Raleigh, Boone and Mingo counties to southeastern Ohio, one can recognize an informal "Coal Industrial Zone" consisting of coal extraction operations in West Virginia and the power plants they feed just over the Ohio River in Meigs County, Ohio. And then there's the destruction that is difficult to see.
In an effort to get rid of billions of gallons of toxic coal slurry, which is the waste by-product that comes from chemical cleaning of coal, this sludge (not sewage) is pumped underground into abandoned mine works, contaminating the drinking water of the vulnerable communities in between.
"They've destroyed our lives -- our health, our past, definitely any chance of a future," explains Gunnoe.
A dirty business
Coal has always provided employment in West Virginia, but compared to the corporate profits exiting Appalachia, miners' salaries serve more as an enabler to a dangerous, sick, indebted future than a promising career. Union mines are virtually extinct in West Virginia, and dependable medical coverage and pension funds are precarious at best.
In fact, the much touted jobs in today's coal mining industry are at best temporary -- one year, maybe two. Coal miners are forced to work in unsafe conditions and abrupt layoffs are the norm.
But coal has maintained its hold and flourished in the region because of politics. The coal industry and politicians have always had a close business relationship. According to a 2006 midterm election report on CNN, the efforts of Massey's CEO -- in the end, unsuccessful -- to win the state legislature for Republicans was describe as this: "Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship has spent more than $1.8 million to promote 41 GOP candidates through contributions and his personal political action committee, And for the Sake of the Kids ."
Blankenship is infamous for his greed and callous attitude towards people, but also for his efforts to stack the deck politically in his favor, using strategic donations. In return for such acts of party-line economic kindness, Bush has aided and abetted the coal barons in their selfish plan with a complete disregard to its effects on the environment and impact on global climate change.
While the world determines how to take action against the dangers of global warming, Bush is blithely backing coal, completely indifferent to the threat of CO2 emissions -- the leading global warming gas -- to the earth's atmosphere. He has used the Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining to streamline the permitting process for the most radical and destructive form of coal mining, mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining, to serve the needs of the coal industry.
West Virginia helped Bush into office by voting Republican for the first time in decades in 2000. In total, nine of the 13 Appalachian states voted for Bush in 2000. In 2002, Bush's first payback to the coal industry was a small but devastating "executive rule change" to the Clean Water Act that reclassified mining "waste" as "fill" so that the mountaintops of Appalachia could be dumped into waterways, burying thousands of miles of vital headwater streams. That legislation is helping to flatten the coal-rich Appalachian mountains.
On Friday, Aug. 24, 2007, the Bush administration insulted the American people again by handing his coal cronies more spoils. The Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining has proposed another rule change that will further declaw the Clean Water Act by institutionalizing valley fills. The proposed rule change nullifies the "100 foot stream buffer zone" rule that prohibits mining within 100 feet of a stream. In the past, the buffer zone has been easily bypassed with a simple waiver request by coal operators. This proposed change will eliminate all barriers to burying Appalachian streams.
If the buffer zone rule is eliminated, coal operators can more freely dump crumbled mountaintops into valleys, burying thousands of miles of headwater streams. Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment in Lewisburg, W.Va., called Bush's latest environmental assault a "parting gift from this administration to the coal industry."
Since the late 1990s, and especially after the 2002 rule change to the Clean Water Act by Bush legalizing the burying of streams with valley fills composed of former mountaintops, MTR coal mining has become an enormous and immediate threat to the region. The most biologically diverse temperate forest in the world, whose capacity at natural carbon sequestration cannot be underestimated, is being rapidly destroyed.
More than 4,000 valley fills in West Virginia alone have buried or severely impacted over 2,000 miles of vital headwater streams -- the source of the southeastern United States' drinking water. Wrapping coal in the flag and the war-time mantra of becoming "energy-independent" is confusing the realities about coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.
Americans use coal for more than 50 percent of their electricity needs. Coal-fired power plants produce 40 percent of U.S. annual CO2 emissions, the primary global warming gas. With plans for 129 new coal-fired power plants on the drawing board, the coal industry, in collusion with the federal government and a wide array of industry partners, is ushering in a new tax payer-subsidized era for coal, making unwitting American tax payers the co-authors of this destruction. American tax payers are bottom-lining the construction of new cross-country transmission lines, funding billion-dollar coal tech projects -- the citizens are paying to develop and construct new plants and the means to transport the product so that the consumer can have the luxury of buying the energy.
A people-powered solution
Only the American people can help stop MTR coal mining. Because politicians are beholden to coal companies and industry partners through political contributions, only a grassroots movement can alter the energy agenda. To restore the Clean Water Act to its original intentions, the Clean Water Protection Act (CWPA) was introduced to Congress on May 8, 2002, by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act so as "to clarify that fill material cannot be comprised of waste."
The CWPA was then referred to the committee of jurisdiction -- the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee will be the first to deal with this legislation. Year by year, the bill gained more co-sponsors. Currently, the Clean Water Protection Act (HR2169), has 99 co-sponsors. If passed, valley fills and thus, MTR, would be made illegal by preventing the disposal of mining waste into headwater streams -- the protection that the Bush administration stripped from the Clean Water Act in 2002.
The CWPA is an easy bill to sign on to: Lawmakers are committing to keeping waste out of our waterways. That it has taken years in the House to garner 99 co-sponsors is a testament to the power of the coal industry. But the tide seems to be changing against coal and towards clean, sustainable energy. The number of proposed coal-fired power plants for the United States recently dropped from 150 to 129 -- due in large part to public outcry and threat of lawsuits because people are more aware of the hazards of coal.
Appalachian mountain communities have been radicalized by the headlong path the coal industry is wreaking in their backyards, propelling many people on to local and national advocacy campaigns to save the land and people of Appalachia from a profit-driven rape.
Maria Gunnoe, who is a trained medical assistant and used to work as a waitress to support her family, is now a full-time mountain community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OHVEC) and there are others in her community who've taken up this work full time.
"People here are now unable to deny the impact of mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining. They are learning about it through personal experience and personal impact -- even the strip miners will tell you that there's going to be a big washout next time the rains come," explained Gunnoe. "They've robbed my children of their childhood. They robbed me of my motherhood. That's all I ever wanted, to be a mother and wife. I just wanted to lie in my little hollow and be left alone. I wanted to teach them what my parents taught me. They've taken that away."
Community members like Gunnoe who speak out against MTR risk losing friendships and jobs, peace of mind, family pets or even their life. Many people are too frightened to talk about how coal mining has adversely affected their lives -- this kind of talk can easily cost a relative his job with one of the offending coal companies.
The coal companies turn communities against each other by telling their employees that the environmentalists want to take away their jobs. In the way they always have, "the mine bosses sit with the younger miners and put something in their ear -- something to get worked up about," explains Ed Wiley, of Rock Creek, W.Va. Unfortunately, as community resistance builds and lawsuits alleging gross injustice finally come to trial, the stage is set for a clash. Whereas the effects of underground mining in the past were far less drastic and coal extraction operations were underground and out of sight, MTR coal mining is a ferocious, in-your-face type of mining that affects every part of your life, if you live nearby.
The chronic relationship between coal operators and politicians in Appalachia, America's most underdeveloped region, continues to this day. Coal serves only a few while condemning local residents to unhealthy lives and uninhabitable homes and the rest of us to dirty energy and a warming planet. Now is the time to stand up and demand clean, renewable energy.
Antrim Caskey has been reporting on the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining since May 2005. Caskey is a Brooklyn-based independent photojournalist whose work focuses on community and social justice issues.