5 Photos Show King Coal’s Grip on Appalachia

Editor’s Note: Tara Lohan is traveling across North America documenting communities impacted by energy development for a new AlterNet project, Hitting Home. Follow the trip on Facebook or follow Tara onTwitter.

Flight for aerial photos was provided by SouthWings.

The signs in Appalachian states like West Virginia and Kentucky remind you who’s in charge. “Friends of Coal.” “Coal Keeps the Lights On.” They’re posted in front yards and as you enter the small towns squeezed into valleys (or “hollers”) between steep mountain slopes.

In his address to the nation last week about climate change, President Obama talked about moving away from “dirty energy,” which was shorthand for coal. Moves to close dirty coal-burning power plants should be welcomed, but they only take into account one part of coal’s lifecycle. The people of Appalachia still contend with the mining and processing of coal, of which is done underground, but the most destructive is done by surface mining, including mountaintop-removal mining. 

And for what? "The long­term trends show mine employment is declining, despite the recent uptick, and poverty rates in Appalachian coal counties are among the highest in the nation," reports Appalachian Voices. "Analysts see demand for Appalachian coal continuing to decline, leaving little prospect of an economic revitalization driven by the coal industry. Therefore, the focus should be on creating and attracting new industries to the region, not continuing to subsidize an outmoded industry."

The people of Appalachia deserve good jobs that don't sacrifice the health of their own communities. Still, coal seems to get a free pass.

1. Here’s a weight limit sign posted on a bridge in Kentucky that includes exceptions for coal trucks. This makes absolutely no sense, of course, since weight limit signs are designed to protect bridges from damage (that will be repaired at taxpayers’ expense). 


2. Driving the roads of Appalachia it can be difficult to see the most destructive parts of the mining process, because the forests are thick and the hills are steep. It helps to get above the action for a better view. Here’s a look at how surface mining creates a virtual moonscape by felling trees, leveling mountaintops and covering up streams. 


3. Mountaintop-removal mining involves blowing hundreds of feet off the tops of mountains to access slim seams of coal. Here’s a closeup of one of those seams exposed at the surface. The rest of the rock is considered “overburden” and is dumped into valleys.


4. Companies are required to “reclaim” the land, which involves replanting fast-growing (and often non-native) species to quickly green the area. Without soil and species diversity, however, the area is nothing more than a monoculture devoid of life that still fragments habitat. Companies are required to “replace” the stream, which they do by building in a straight line of rocks down the side of the hill, which you can see in this photo.


5. The bumpersticker, “Everyone lives downstream,” captures the notion that we’re all impacted by environmental issues. While this is true in the big picture, some people are inevitably more impacted, especially communities that live in areas of extraction or burning of fossil fuels. Most Appalachian communities are nestled in valleys between steep mountains. When surface mining occurs above them, the inhabitants are endangered by polluted water, blasting and land/rock slides as forests are cleared and the structural integrity of the mountain is undermined. This Kentucky community sits directly beneath a mountaintop-removal site.


Twenty peer-reviewed studies have documented the impacts of mountaintop-removal mining on the health of Appalachian residents, and the results are frightening.

“More than 500 of the nation’s oldest mountains have already been destroyed and every day mountaintop removal is allowed to continue, the impacts of air and water pollution on human health grow worse,” reports Appalachian Voices. “As many as 60,000 additional cases of cancer in Central Appalachia are directly linked to mountaintop removal, and more than 700 additional deaths from heart disease occur every year due to the practice.” 


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