Many Mountains. One Voice.

Twin Creeks

It's good to know that Kentuckians have laws to protect their communities from the abuses of our throwaway society. While spending time recently in the eastern part of the state, I was relieved when I read a front page story in the Floyd County Times about folks not just fined, but sent to jail for illegally dumping refuse along a county road. Watch out litter bugs or you may get unlucky in Kentucky!

But as bad as that particular problem is I have to wonder if broken glass, busted furniture and assorted trash cluttering roadsides and streams is really the highest priority pollution in need of enforcement. You would think that the authorities in eastern Kentucky have bigger fish to fry – namely those pesky coal companies that are literally blowing up mountains and burying the streams below with tons of rock and mine waste. Tackling unsightly litter is all good and well, but seriously, what about the rampant valley fills obliterating and polluting entire watersheds all over Appalachia? 

Along with a few other NRDC colleagues, we took a trip to the region to meet with the Alliance for Appalachia, a coalition of local citizen groups fighting the coal companies that specialize in this most rapacious and reckless form of strip mining. Several groups have excellent websites, but a couple of especially good starting points to learn more about the growing movement to save America’s most ancient peaks are or

You may have heard about this atrocity taking place primarily in West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and parts of Tennessee. Maybe you’ve watched documentaries or viewed videos about mountaintop removal coal mining, or even read some of the excellent books on the subject, such as Jeff Goodell’s Big Coal or Erik Reece’s Lost Mountain. But trust me, you simply cannot comprehend the scope and severity of the problem until you travel to Appalachia and bear witness to this tragedy. 

During our visit we trekked the back roads of the coal fields in West Virginia and Kentucky, dodging speeding coal trucks laden with lumps of “black diamonds”, watching huge excavators eat away high-wall seams, staring slack-jawed as giant earth movers dumped endless layers of dirt down mountainsides, and wincing whenever high explosives reduced ridges to rubble. 

Of course, it was down in the hollows where the worst impacts of mountaintop destruction hit home – literally. It’s there, along the narrow roads leading to and from the mines, where we met some of the victims. People like Dalven Ratliffe, a local pastor whose Kentucky home – and those of his neighbors – bear cracks in the walls, ceiling and foundation from the constant rattle of blasting.

We heard harrowing first-hand accounts of the harassment and lies by the coal companies who will stop at nothing to secure the leasing rights to residential property so they can expand the mining. Rev. Ratliffe refuses to sell out to Big Coal – but the result of his courageous stand is not just relentless industry abuse but also cold indifference if not outright hostility from government regulators who see their jobs as protecting coal profits, not the public interest. 

We met a number of gracious folks who told us their stories and showed us how their lives are being ruined by environmental destruction fueled by a mix of senseless corporate greed and shocking government corruption. Most amazing to me, however, is the resilience of these folks despite the ugly legacy of Big Coal’s power over the people.  

Take Rick Handshoe, for example. His family has lived on the same chunk of land at the foot of the mountains in that neck of Kentucky for over 200 years. Rick’s certainly not your typical activist – in fact, he’s the opposite of someone who usually fits that description. A friendly, fair-haired 47-year old, he became an outspoken opponent of mountaintop removal a few years back only after the mining crossed over a few ridges to his own back yard. Now his home and those throughout the valley are under siege – from burning coal ash that clouds the sky, from black dust that coats cars (and everything else), from dried up creeks where water flow is cut off by the valley fills, from methane gas that seeps into wells and faucets.  

Unlike a lot of folks who feel there’s just no way to win against the coal companies, Rick is a leader fighting the good fight with help from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. He’s doing this not just for his own sake or for the future of his daughter’s generation, but for everyone who’s suffering from this injustice.

Rick’s father lives nearby in a house built over 60 years ago by his father, which is catching all kinds of hell from the sprawling coal operation that moved in next door a couple of years ago. As we visited with Clinton Handshoe on his front porch, he ran his finger through the coal dust covering the plastic furniture and told us: “I drove a coal truck years ago. I’m not against coal. I’m against this.” 

coal dust

Everybody – not just in Appalachia but all over America – should be against the travesty of mountaintop removal coal mining. And everybody who cares should find a way to join the fight to save not someone else’s but our mountains. This destructive mining must end if for no other reason than so Mr. Handshoe can once again sit on his porch in peace and enjoy the view, in a world without the constant pounding of machinery against rock that is slowly but surely reducing his beloved mountains to a flat, dead moonscape.