The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t just handed offshore oil-drilling’s foes some powerful new ammunition, it has also steeled the resolve of activists battling against another ecologically devastating fuel extraction process — mountaintop-removal coalmining in the Appalachians.
“I’m counting on the fact that this disaster will wake Americans up, the ones that haven’t already been woken up,” Julia Bonds, executive director of West Virginia’s Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), told the Belfast Telegraph. Dubbed ‘strip-mining on steroids’, the process begins with trees being clear cut from peaks. Then upwards of 800 feet of elevation is blasted off with a concoction of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate akin to that used by Timothy McVeigh — each explosion 10 times more powerful than McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bomb. Central Appalachia endures hundreds such blasts daily. So far, more than 450 mountaintops have been erased.
Bulldozers then plough tons of trees, rock and soil debris into nearby valleys. Since 1985, thousands of Appalachian valleys have become clogged with such rubble, increasing the severity of flood damage. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than 700 miles of streams have been completely buried.
Coal is a huge component of America’s energy landscape. Last year, power plants burned more than a billion tons of coal en route to producing more than half of the nation’s electricity.
Companies such as Massey Energy — owners of West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 miners died in an April explosion — say mountaintop removal isn’t destructive, because areas are later reseeded with grass and trees. Critics claim companies routinely break promises and leave behind severely scarred landscapes. Coal industry defenders also argue mountaintop mining provides much-needed jobs. But the CRMW’s Julia Bonds dismisses the notion. “We’ve been mining coal for over 140 years here in West Virginia. We’re the poorest state in the nation and the most unhealthy state in the nation — both physically and mentally,” she said. “So, if there is prosperity from coal mining, I can’t find it anywhere.
“The real problem here is the lack of diversification, a reliance on one industry, such as a banana republic would rely on one crop. And that’s what we consider ourselves — a banana republic.
“When you have a mono economy, it take choices away from communities and people, as a culture.” CRMW advocates wind-power as an alternative to coal mining. It says its proposed Coal River Mountain Wind Project would power between 85,000 and 100,000 homes with turbines built on peaks that Massey wants to blast apart.
CRMW claims 28% more jobs would be created than with mountaintop removal mining. And, since wind is a renewable resource, long-term tax revenue would be secured as well.
Still, Bonds admits the project faces an uphill battle: “The coal industry thinks that West Virginia is its own little country where they can do anything they want.”
Bonds traces the fighting spirit she and others have displayed to their Scots-Irish ancestors.
“We’re very proud of our resistance to the abuses of the coal industry. And we know where that came from. It came from our Ulster-Scots heritage. The Irish and the Ulster-Scots who came to this area came here to settle it, not to mine it.”
Still, fighting spirit aside, given the breadth of the coal industry’s power and influence, how can CRMW hope to succeed? “You fight it one day at a time, honey,” Bonds said. “You eat that elephant one bite at a time.
“We have to be hopeful because coal is a finite resource. You can only mine it and burn it one time. And, according to [US Geological Survey] reports of coal reserves in the area, we’re looking at approximately 20 years’ worth of coal left here in the valley.
“So we have to have another source of energy and we have to have it soon — hopefully while we still have some mountains left to put wind turbines on.”