Front Porch Blog

The Green Team Attempts to Move Mountains in the Coal Mines of West Virginia

The Green Team attempts to move mountains in the coal mines of West Virginia

by Ashlee Cossaboon and Hilary Smith
November 16, 2006

Mountaintop removal is quickly becoming the most devastating force ever to hit the Appalachian Mountains. Members of Radford University’s Green Team traveled to West Virginia Nov. 12 as part of Mountain Justice Summer’s Southeast Youth and Student Mountaintop Removal Convergence this past weekend to get a firsthand look at how the mountain environment is quickly crumbling away.

The Green Team first visited Hillary Hosta, who works for the Coal River Mountain Watch group. Then they moved on to the property of Larry Gibson, a resident of Boone County, W.Va., and an activist fighting mountaintop removal. From Gibson’s property, they were able to view mountaintop removal sites and see the damage the mining has caused to Gibson’s property. Finally, they paid a visit to Ed Wiley, who has walked to protest the coal mining activities behind Marsh Fork Elementary School, which is downstream from a coal sludge impoundment held by an earthen dam. The Sludge Safety Project Web site reports that the elementary school is 150 feet from a coal silo and that students are exposed to coal dust and potentially harmful chemicals, such as cyanide.

“We also got a chance to visit Marsh Fork Elementary, which sits dangerously close to a coal mining site,” said RU Green Team Co-President Kate Gaston. “Many children face the risk of not only debris from the mined mountain, but floods and fumes from the toxins released into the air. Many children have frequent headaches and complain of not feeling right. They cannot drink from the water fountains in school because the water is too polluted.”

“Mountaintop removal is awful to hear about, but to go and witness the impact firsthand is indescribable,” said RU senior Lauren Storie. “I was disappointed the weather was so foggy on Sunday, but I was motivated after hearing Larry Gibson talk so passionately about the impact it has had on his life.”

“From the experience, I gained more knowledge than I had before, but it really just set a fire under me,” said Miriam Scott, co-president of RU’s Green Team.

While in West Virginia, students learned about the process of mountaintop removal and the environmental and health effects. Since mountaintop removal is a relatively new method of coal mining, it is being used by more coal mining companies than ever before.

The procedure for this practice is just what it sounds like. Coal companies start by using explosives to blast away the tops of the mountains to expose the coal underneath. The land, rocks and debris left over from the blasting are then dumped into the surrounding valleys, creating what are called valley fills. This levels mountainous areas and covers up and contaminates the fresh water streams that run through these valleys.

According to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, valley fills were responsible for covering up over 900 miles of streams in 1998.

A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service examined permit files and found that the covering up these streams has a devastating effect on aquatic habitats and surrounding plant and animal life as their water supply is cut off.

The animals that used to live on the blasted mountains or in the now-filled valleys cannot survive there anymore. Plant life is also left with minimal chance of survival due to the hard, rocky surface that is left.

A 1992 Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report estimated that the mineral mining industry generated about 1.7 billion tons of extraction and related wastes in 1987, and this does not include mineral processing and other related hard rock mining wastes.

Coal companies argue that the land they mine from is reclaimed to a standard equivalent, and the land is restored to equal what was there before. However, activists say the forests in the Appalachian region have been there for hundreds of thousands of years and that the dense hardwood forests that were there cannot be replaced. In some of the places that are now called reclaimed areas, there are just flat open spaces spotted with two- or three-foot-tall pine trees.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the Clean Water Act do not require that sites forested prior to mining would be reforested as part of the post mining reclamation requirements.”

The families who have been living in the Appalachian region are considered by many activists and environmentalists to be victims of mountaintop removal.

“The impact of mountaintop removal on nearby communities is devastating. Dynamite blasts needed to splinter rock strata are so strong they crack the foundations and walls of houses. Mining dries up an average of 100 wells a year and contaminates water in others. In many coalfield communities, the purity and availability of drinking water are keen concerns,” stated the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Integrated Assessment.

Mountaintop removal is causing the citizens of affected areas to leave the only place they have ever known as home.

“The communities below these massive operations are often devastated. People are forced from their homes by blasting (which often cracks their houses walls and foundations); by dust, noise, flying rocks, and the degradation of stream and well water,” said Joan Mulhern, the senior legislative counsel of Earthjustice, in her presentation to the U.S. Senate subcommittee on clean air, wetlands, and climate change of the environment and public works committee in 2002. “Life near mountaintop removal operations becomes so unbearable that generations-old communities are forced to move away.”

“We decided to go on this trip because mountaintop removal is a horrible method [for obtaining energy sources]” Scott said. “The coal companies are destroying our beautiful Appalachian Mountains and people’s communities.”

“This weekend woke me up, it was definitely an emotional experience,” said Green Team member Julia Hasty. “On Saturday night we all gathered around a fire and talked about what all we had seen and felt. I had never felt that close to that many people in my life.”

After making the trip and getting an up-close and personal look of what mountaintop removal is doing to the Appalachian landscape and its communities, the Green Team has decided to take action.

During the last week of November, they will host a mini-film fest showing some documentary work on mountaintop removal and its effects, and they hope to have Larry Gibson speak at this event. The group has also lined up a speaker in April during Earth Week to speak on the issue as well.

“We will educate people on what is going on and how they [can] make a difference,” Scott said. We can not sit by any longer and let it continue.”

Article courtesy of Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Organization





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