As a reminder, later today will be a critically important Senate hearing before the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on "The Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining on Water Quality in Appalachia." The hearing (which I'll be Tweeting live!) is being convened by Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md), co-sponsor of a bi-partisan bill -- The Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) -- aimed at ending the reckless devastation of America's oldest mountains by rapacious coal companies.
Among those giving testimony to Congress will be Maria Gunnoe, the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner, from West Virginia.
Lest anyone think that mountaintop removal is only a problem for the people and places of West Virginia's coalfields, consider that this most extreme form of strip mining is happening throughout the heart of the multi-state Appalachian region. Indeed, another hard-hit state at ground zero in the struggle to save the mountains and valley communities is Kentucky.
Recently, with our local allies Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), I took an aerial and ground tour of mountaintop removal operations in several counties in eastern Kentucky. Of course, the pictures I took -- as illustrated by the slide show below -- tell only part of the story. I also met with many KFTC members who shared troubling and touching stories about how the mining is adversely affected their homes and lives.
Here's something to keep in mind: it's not just the actual mining that causes problems. Take a close look at the photos of the huge sludge ponds perched precariously above the communities. You see, after the coal is blasted from the rubble and scooped out, it gets sent to a processing plant. Here the coal is crushed and soaked in a substance call magnetite to separate the coal from the rock (because the coal floats and the rock sinks). Then the waste rock and magnetite are transferred up to the sludge pond on a slurry line, where it's either loaded on a train or on trucks. In the "impoundment" (or unlined polluted pond) containing billions of gallons of slurry, all that is holding back the toxic brew is an earthen damn. Imagine having that looming over your house, neighborhood or school.
Also of note: One of the sites I flew over was the Starfire mine, operated by International Coal Group -- it's the largest surface mine in Kentucky. There is a small pond in the middle of this site with a series of small islands. This body of water now serves as a duck pond and as such it is touted by the industry as a successful reclamation project. But according to KFTC, when one of its members went on a tour of this site he learned that the ducks' wings had to be clipped in order to keep them in the pond.
A picture may be worth a thousand words but that story says it all.