In the Elk Valley region of East Tennessee, coal companies are telling a tale of a new type of mountaintop strip-mining that they say will not destroy homes, rivers, mountains and economies (see story on p.12). This new mining technique is called cross-ridge mining and it differs only slightly from the highly controversial mountaintop removal mining found elsewhere in Appalachia. In mountaintop removal operations, the tops of mountains are blown to rubble and dumped into the valleys below, burying streams, forests, and the homes and communities of displaced mountain folk. In Tennessee, however, coal companies now claim that after blowing up mountaintops and storing the rubble elsewhere while they extract the coal, they can then take that rubble and put the mountain back how it was. It’s a tale of Humpty Dumpty where they actually put Humpty back together again. Or do they?
Many Elk Valley residents don’t believe these fairy tales from the coal companies. They believe that, under a new disguise, mountaintop removal is coming to their community. They believe this will result in the long-term loss of forests uphill from their homes, leading to more flooding; they believe that mining wastes will pollute fishing streams and ruin wildlife habitat; and they believe that the coal companies will pack their bags after a decade or two, leaving behind a blasted moonscape in place of beautiful mountains and ghost towns in place of thriving communities. And history justifies their concern.
As usual, the story that Tennesseans are hearing from the coal companies sounds good indeed. Supposedly, this new type of mining will create jobs; it will energize the economy; it will lead to better schools and expand economic development. But Tennesseeans need look no further than their northern neighbors in Kentucky and West Virginia to see the actual impact of mountaintop removal mining. There, this mining has done nothing but worsen the poverty, joblessness, and lack of opportunity in Appalachia’s poorest counties. Over the past 15 years since mountaintop removal came to southern West Virginia, the number of coal jobs has declined by half while coal production has remained steady. In the mean time, a quarter of the mountains in West Virginia’s southern coalfields have been leveled, hundreds of schools have closed, entire communities have been destroyed or relocated, and many citizens have lost their lives in floods as a result of mountaintop removal mining.
Now, the Volunteer State faces a choice of whether to welcome this kind of mining. It is the opinion of this newspaper that, if they do welcome it, residents of Tennessee’s eastern mountains will lose more than wildlife habitat and fishing streams: they will lose lives of family members and neighbors from floods, they will lose the peace and quiet of their rural lifestyle, they will lose far more economic opportunities than they gain, and they will lose the beauty of their mountain landscapes forever. Governor Bredesen needs to know that if he allows this destruction to continue, not all of his horses, nor all of his men, will ever put the lives of Elk Valley residents, or the beauty of East Tennessee, back together again.