Mining the Mountain

The 80-square mile Hobet 21 mine (above), near Danville, West Virginia, is due to expand fivefold -- like other mountaintop removal operations it will yield one ton of coal for every 16 tons of terrain displaced.

This mine is the crux of a powerful, compelling, richly-detailed story in the latest Smithsonian magazine, entitled Mining the Mountain, which boils down to this: "Explosives and giant machines are destroying Appalachian peaks to obtain coal.  In a tiny West Virginia town, residents and the industry fight over a mountain's fate."

For anyone trying to get your head around the issue of mountaintop removal coal mining, this article does a fabulous job explaining what this form of extreme strip mining involves, how it came to be and the lasting devastating impacts on the environment and local communities.  Here is an excerpt:

"Now coal is back, with a different approach: demolishing mountains instead of drilling into them, a method known as mountaintop coal removal. One project is dismantling the backside of Gauley Mountain, the town's signature topographical feature, methodically blasting it apart layer by layer and trucking off the coal to generate electricity and forge steel. Gauley is fast becoming a kind of Potemkin peak-whole on one side, hollowed out on the other. Some Ansted residents support the project, but in a twist of local history, many people, former miners included, oppose it, making the town an improbable battleground in the struggle to meet the nation's rising energy needs.

"Since the mid-1990s, coal companies have pulverized Appalachian mountaintops in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Peaks formed hundreds of millions of years ago are obliterated in months. Forests that survived the last ice age are chopped down and burned. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by 2012, two decades of mountaintop removal will have destroyed or degraded 11.5 percent of the forests in those four states, an area larger than Delaware. Rubble and waste will have buried more than 1,000 miles of streams."

Author John McQuaid views the larger controversy over mountaintop mining through the lens of one tiny town: Ansted, West Virgina.  He lays out the special urgency of the conflict between two competing visions for Appalachia's future: coal mining, West Virginia's most hallowed industry, and tourism, its most promising emerging business, which is growing at about three times the rate of the mining industry statewide.

In this case, Ansted and its mining site lie between two National Park Service recreational areas, along the Gauley and New rivers, about ten miles apart.  The New River Gorge Bridge, a span 900 feet above the water and perhaps West Virginia's best-known landmark, is just 11 miles by car from Ansted.  Hawks Nest State Park is nearby.  Rafting, camping -- and, one day a year, parachuting from the New River Bridge -- draw hundreds of thousands of people to the area annually.

Having visited several similar small towns in Appalachia, I was struck by McQuaid's literary ability to take the reader to the top of Ansted's 2,500-foot ridge and then describe how the picturesque view changes startlingly:

"Once the road passes the crest, the mountain becomes an industrial zone. On the day that I visited, countless felled trees were scattered across a slope stripped clear by bulldozers.  Such timber is sometimes sold, but the trees are more often burned -- a practice that amplifies coal's considerable impact on air pollution and global warming, both by generating carbon dioxide and by eliminating living trees, which absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Half a mile beyond that treeless slope, a mountain peak had been rendered like a carcass in a meat factory: its outermost rock layers had been blasted away, the remains dumped in nearby hollows, creating 'valley fills.'  Heavy earth-moving equipment had scraped out the thin layers of coal.  A broad outcropping of pale brown rock remained, scheduled for later demolition.

I completely agree with McQuaid that the scale of these projects is best appreciated from above.  As I have done, he took a flight over the coal fields in a small plane provided by Southwings.  This is what he saw:

"The forest quickly gave way to one mining operation, then another-huge quarries scooped out of the hills.  Some zones sprawl over dozens of square miles.  Explosives were being set in one area.  In another, diggers were scraping off layers of soil and rock -- called 'overburden' -- on top of the coal.  Trucks were carting rock and gravel to dump in adjacent valleys.  Black, shimmering impoundments of sludge stretched along hillsides.  Tanker trucks sprayed flattened hills with a mixture of grass seed and fertilizer, which would give rise to a sort of artificial prairie where forested peaks had been."

Here is my photo of the giant toxic-laden sludge impoundment looming dangerously over Marsh Fork Elementary School.

Unless you're a coal baron perhaps, you can't witness mountaintop mining without being shocked by its scope and outraged by the lunacy that this is not only happening here in America, but is being allowed by our environmental agencies.  McQuaid's own reaction sums this up nicely:

"I've reported on devastation around the world-from natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, to wars in Central America and the Middle East, to coastlines in Asia degraded by fish farming.  But in the sheer audacity of its destruction, mountaintop coal removal is the most shocking thing I've ever seen.  Entering a mountaintop site is like crossing into a war zone.  Another day, as I walked near a site on Kayford Mountain, about 20 miles southwest of Ansted, along a dirt road owned by a citizen who declined to lease to the mining companies, a thunderous boom rattled the ground.  A plume of yellow smoke rose into the sky, spread out and settled over me, giving the bare trees and the chasm beyond the eerie cast of a battlefield."

I could go on and on detailing this excellent article, but suffice it to say Mining the Mountain is a must-read.  I'll close here with some context eloquently provided by McQuaid, which pinpoints exactly what's at stake:

"The Appalachian coal fields date back about 300 million years, when today's green highlands were tropical coastal swamps.  Over the millennia, the swamps swallowed up massive amounts of organic material -- trees and leafy plants, animal carcasses, insects.  There, sealed off from the oxygen essential to decomposition, the material congealed into layers of peat.  When the world's landmasses later collided in a series of mega-crashes, the coastal plain was pushed upward to become the Appalachians; after the greatest of these collisions, they reached as high as today's Himalayas, only to be eroded over the ages.  The sustained geologic pressure and heat involved in creating the mountains baked and compressed the peat from those old bogs into seams of coal from a few inches to several feet thick.

"First mined in the 19th century, Appalachian coal dominated the U.S. market for 100 years.  But the game changed in the 1970s, when mining operations started in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where coal seams are far thicker -- up to 200 feet -- and closer to the surface than anything in the East.  It was in the West and Midwest where miners first employed some of the world's largest movable industrial equipment to scrape the earth.  Behemoths called draglines can be more than 20 stories tall and use a scoop big enough to hold a dozen small cars.  They are so heavy that no onboard power source could suffice -- they tap directly into the electrical grid.  Western mining operations achieved fantastic economies of scale, though Western coal has a lower energy content than Eastern coal and costs more to move to its principal customers, Midwestern and Eastern power plants.

"Then, in 1990, Eastern coal mining, long in decline, got a boost from an unlikely source: the Clean Air Act, revised that year to restrict sulfur dioxide emissions, the cause of acid rain.  As it happens, central Appalachia's coal deposits are low in sulfur.  Soon the draglines arrived in the East and coal mining's effect on the landscape took an ugly turn.  To be sure, Wyoming's open-pit coal mines aren't pretty, but their location in a remote, arid basin has minimized the impact on people and wildlife.  By contrast, coal seams in Appalachia require extensive digging for a smaller yield.  The resulting debris is dumped into nearby valleys, effectively doubling the area of impact. More people live near the mines.  And the surrounding forests are biologically dense -- home to a surprising abundance and variety of life-forms."