The Tragedy of King Coal: Mountaintop Removal

In 1996, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stood on a reclaimed mountaintop-removal site in West Virginia, surveyed the broken, treeless landscape and the rough grass that had taken hold there, and proclaimed it "a better landscape than it was before. It's a much more diverse landscape, a savannah of fields and forests coming back. It is in some ways closer to the landscape that existed here a thousand years ago than the unmined landscape." He concluded by referring to "the miracle that we see upon this ground today."It was a farcical segment in a many-act tragedy. In Appalachia, all of history and politics run through coal. The region's coalfields lie to the west of the great Appalachain chain, whose gentle slopes and folds are among the oldest in the world. The first European settlers were Scots and Scots-Irish, and at the beginning of this century many of their grandchildren sold the rights to the minerals beneath their land for a pittance to speculators employed by Eastern landholding companies. That was the beginning of decades of struggle. In battles over unionization during the 1920s, strikers' camps were riddled with bullets by company goons. The unions retaliated in kind. In 1922, an army of ten thousand miners marched out of Charleston into the coalfields, where they met a band of strikebreakers and fought a three-day gun battle that ended only when the National Guard intervened. For years, especially in West Virginia, the United Mine Workers on the left and the companies on the right maintained a death grip on statehouse politics.For all these reasons, people in Appalachia used to refer wryly to "King Coal." In many ways the term still fits. Coal produces more than half of all American electricity and costs less per unit of energy than any other fossil fuel. That is why national coal production went over a billion tons for the first time in 1990, and has stayed there since 1994.More and more, however, it is a kingdom without subjects. Coal employment has declined by half nationwide in the last decade, while the average miner's hourly productivity has tripled. That is because traditional underground mining is being replaced by strip-mining, which now accounts for 62 percent of U.S. coal production. Strip-mining is conducted less with human labor than by bulldozers, explosives, and the Goliaths of the coalfields, earthmoving machines that stand twenty stories high and can pick up 130 tons of dirt and rock with a single bite of their shovels. It takes three underground miners to dig the same amount of coal that a strip-miner can unearth in a day's work.Despite these disadvantages, underground mining has held on because Eastern coal is richer in energy than Western deposits, which are almost always strip-mined. However, the Eastern coalfields were devastated after the 1990 Clean Air Act, in an effort to reduce acid rain, put a premium on coal with a low sulfur content. The high-sulfur mines of the East shut down, costing thousands of jobs. With that change came a new interest in the energy-rich, low-sulfur coal of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. That coal is deposited in thin, horizontal seams, some hundreds of feet underground. It would be extremely difficult to mine in any other way than by mountaintop removal. With dynamite and earthmoving machines, however, the coal comes out and the coalfields stay alive.So, it is tempting to say that all of this is simply what the market requires. And there is some truth in that; but it is too simple. Markets, unlike rivers and mountain ranges, are not natural formations. Their shape emerges from politics, history, and sometimes armed struggle. As other authors explain in this issue, today's Appalachian coal economy comes directly from a long and determined perversion of federal law by state and federal regulators and, above all, by the mining industry itself. That is only the beginning. The coal industry survives thanks to a set of political choices about which of the many costs that it produces will be absorbed by mining companies, and which ones will be passed off onto the general public and the natural world, becoming what economists call "externalities."To begin with, coal is the cheapest source of energy only because we allow companies to get at it by irreparably rending mountains, filling in streams, and disrupting ecosystems. If we required mining operations to avoid or remedy this kind of damage -- basically, to pay for the harm that mining does to the environment -- coal would suddenly be a very expensive energy source.Other environmental costs are more subtle than the destruction of mountains, but may ultimately produce even more harm. Burning coal produces twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas and 50 percent more than oil and gasoline. This makes coal a leading cause of the global buildup of greenhouse gases, and so, probably, of global warming. Coal is also the source of 70 percent of America's sulfur dioxide emissions, making it the number-one culprit in causing acid rain. These, too, are costs that no one pays for directly -- least of all the companies that continue to profit by producing "cheap" energy. Putting those costs back on the producers of coal -- and, yes, on all of us consumers of electricity -- would be a political decision.Mountaintop removal is only the latest event in a long history of depredation. In the past, though, coal has been at the heart only of Appalachia's struggles. Today it exemplifies a much broader political choice: whether to begin creating an environmentally responsible economy, or to continue looking at a broken and polluted landscape and pronouncing it good because we can find no way to make it better.

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