Here’s what Annie Kate had to say about Bringing Down the Mountains, a book about mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia by Shirley Stewart Burns:
Sacrificed to King Coal
A review of Bringing Down the Mountains by Shirley Stewart Burns
Morgantown WV West Virginia University Press, 2007. ISBN # 978-1-933202-17-4)
Review by Merrill E. Pratt
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) can thought of as “strip mining on steroids.” MTR is used in the Southern Appalachian coal country of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee to quickly and cheaply mine the coal that lies in the mountains.
First, the timber is clear-cut and sold. Then the part of the mountain that sits on top of the coal is blasted apart and typically dumped in the nearest valley. The coal seam is then mined and treated. This treatment results in a mix of wastes, many of them toxic, called slurry. The slurry is contained in ponds made by erecting an earthen dam in a nearby valley or hollow. Since a mountain may contain several coal seams, the process continues until all the coal is gone. Unfortunately, a substantial amount of the mountain is also gone. Mine operators are required to reclaim the area when they are done, but this “reclamation” is most often a token effort.
In Bringing Down the Mountains, Shirley Stewart Burns describes and analyzes the effects of MTR on nine counties in Southern West Virginia. Southern West Virginia, with its high-volatility, low sulfur coal was one of the first areas to be subjected to MTR. She also gives a brief history of the relationships between the coal companies; the United Mine Workers’ of America (UMWA), and local, state, and federal elected and appointed officials. Thoroughly researched, using sources from all sides of the issues involved, as well as interviews with people involved in various aspects of MTR, Bringing Down the Mountainsfocuses on mainly West Virginia, although much of the book is applicable to the other states where MTR is practiced.
The picture that emerges is a deeply troubling one. For the short-term gain of no morethan an additional 10 years’ worth of coal production (which would supply less than 5% of the United States’ total coal consumption for that time period), Burns shows how the coal companies and their allies at all levels of government have ravaged the region. Further, she details how they have done this in a way that seems almost deliberately designed to preclude any economic diversification of the area. These areas, which have always been dependent on coal production for their economic livelihood, will be virtual ghost towns when the coal is mined out and the land abandoned. In effect the land, its biodiversity, and its people are being sacrificed for a very small bit of coal over a very small time frame.
With meticulous detail, Burns documents the various negative effects of MTR. These effects include:
# Economic factors, including:
* Loss of jobs in the area even as coal production is increasing,
* No commitment by state and local governments to better infrastructure and economic diversification,
* And diminished property values
# Environmental factors:
* decreased water quality,
* loss of aquatic and terrestrial habitat,
* increased incidence and severity of flooding,
* changes in habitat as a result of “reclamation an restoration” efforts, which introduce non-native plants to the mine site.
* the destruction of some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world
* and the virtual destruction of some of the earth’s oldest mountains.
# Health factors including:
* the effects of diminished water quality on the people of the area,
* the effects of the persistent coal dust (at one point so thick that the staff at an elementary school had to wash the coal dust of the entire kitchen every morning),
* and the accidents resulting from extremely large coal truck traveling on very narrow, twisting mountain roads.
# Social factors including the breakup of extended families because there are no viable jobs in the area and the destruction of the once-viable Southern Appalachian culture.
Ms. Burns also attempts to trace the relationships between the coal companies, government officials at all levels, and even the UMWA as they combine to ensure the continuation of MTR without effective regulation. Burns shows how, for over 100 years, the West Virginia state government has been essentially an extension of the coal and railroad companies. Federal agencies are not exempt from her scrutiny, either. She details how the US Corps of Engineers has issued waste disposal permits for MTR operations, even though the issuance of such permits is by law under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. Also detailed is how agencies at all levels (especially in the Bush administration) have re-interpreted and re-defined regulations to favor the coal companies. Successful lawsuits against the coal companies in Federal District Court are routinely overturned on appeal. Appeals from Federal courts in West Virginia are reviewed by the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, VA, thought by many to be the most conservative or all Federal Circuit Courts. The Fourth Circuit has yet to rule against the coal companies.
All is not gloom and doom, however. Burns also talks about organizations and individuals that are fighting the uphill battle to rein in MTR, or at minimum force the mine operators and Federal and state regulators to adhere to current mine safety and environmental protection laws. Despite great odds, there have been a few successes, including a successful lawsuit to block the forced sale of the Caudill family’s ancestral home to an MTR operation. Among the organizations highlighted are Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, and Appalachian Voices. Burns writes about the individual efforts of people such as Judy Bonds, Larry Gibson, Mary Miller, Pauline Canterberry, and US District Judge Charles D. Hadden II.
Shirley Stewart Burns is a West Virginia native with three generations of underground coal miners in her family. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism and graduate degrees in both sociology and history. Her family background and love of the region, and her dismay at what MTR is doing to her home, are evident in the passion of her writing. Her scholarship and academic background keep her passion focused on the facts. Bringing Down the Mountains is without a doubt the first book you should read if you want to learn more about MTR, how it came to be, what it does to the earth, and what is being done to try and stop, or at least slow down, this very destructive process.
To see the post at its original location, check out the Life in Small Bites Environment Blog.