Days 255-258: West Virginia, Mountain Momma…


It’s the phrase that’s been going through my head all weekend in West Virginia. We’ve been “digging into” mountain top removal (MTR) coal mining out here – unbelievably tragic stuff and arguably the most environmentally destructive process that mankind engages in.

Saturday morning, we took a small plane up over southern WV – there’s a great little operation out of Asheville, NC called Southwings where pilots volunteer their time and money to take people up in the air to show them the MTR that’s happening out here. Our wonderful pilot, Susan Lapis, has given tours to everyone from Robert Kennedy Jr. to Woody Harrelson and was an unbelievable guide and pilot. There’s really no substitute for seeing this problem from the air. Evidently, everyone who takes the flight has the same initial response to seeing the devastation – “I had no idea!” We were certainly no exception.

Then we visited with a man named Larry Gibson, a mountain-loving native of Appalachia who lives in a humble cabin perched on the last remaining sliver of Kayford Mountain in a sea of MTR coal mining. His cabin used to be one of the low points in the area and now it’s one of the highest. He’s a one-man army taking on big coal and speaking around the country about MTR. Fighting to protect his “family’s mountain,” he was emboldened even further after the coal companies blew up one of his family’s grave yards in the course of destroying a neighboring mountain to get at the coal underneath. Though of small stature, Larry is truly a giant among men – just the warmest, most colorful, caring activist. We first spoke to him in his cabin on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and then returned to him on Sunday for a grand tour of his little “island” in the sea of “big coal,” complete with an enormous mining operation right in his back yard. Having been threatened, shot at, and had his cabin torched, he’s fighting the big-coal monster, and willing to lay down his life to do it. A true hero.

Finally, on Monday, we traveled into a hollow (a valley hamlet, pronounced “holler” if your local) and spoke with Bobby Mitchell and Maria Lambert. Maria lives in one of many hollows that have been ravaged by water pollution from MTR mining, where the incidents of certain cancers and diseases are off the charts – in one hollow, nearly every person has had to have their gall bladder removed. The things that come out of Maria’s tap look like a toxic science experiment gone awry, and the seemingly innocuous creek running in front of her house is untouchable – she won’t even let her granddaughter stick her foot in it. Bobby is helping to organize and empower local citizens like Maria to unite around these issues, get their water tested, and start raising some hell about these life-threatening problems. More often than not people like Bobby and Maria are given the run-around by local agencies and governments, but they continue to persevere. It’s a daunting and thankless process, but there’s nothing like having your life and health on the line to motivate you.

Pictures can not begin to do this MTR issue justice – the amount of devastation going on in Appalachia in the name of cheap energy is just mind-blowing. In Wyoming, coal seams are, in many cases, just under the surface so companies can essentially “scoop” it out rather than burrowing underground like in traditional mining. This kind of strip mining is cheaper and requires fewer workers than traditional underground mining, so in order to stay competitive with cheap Wyoming coal and to make an extra buck, companies that mine in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are increasingly relying on MTR coal mining. Huge mountains are simply gone and the “overburden” is dumped into the valleys, polluting waterways and ecosystems. Over 1200 miles of streams and rivers in WV have been effectively buried or poisoned from MTR – there are all kinds of heavy metals and chemicals that leach into the surface and groundwater when coal and rocks that were never meant to see the light of day are suddenly and violently exposed (not to mention the witches brew of toxic chemicals used to “clean” and process the coal before it is shipped off). So much illegal is going on in these mountains it’s hard to know where to begin – one mining operation was committing an average of 26 violations per day, every day for 6 years! Of course, all of this has been getting dramatically worse under the current administration.

Many people are finding every color of water coming out of their tap (black, brown, red, orange, green) and are either dying or suffering a long list of ailments from contaminated drinking water. Much of this news never sees the light of day, and the state and local governments seem to be completely in bed with the big coal companies. This is why, despite the current rhetoric on TV to the contrary, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CLEAN COAL. Carbon sequestration is such a small tip of such an enormous ice berg. If our excursion into coal country has taught us anything, it is that coal simply needs to stay in the ground, and more people need to hear about what is really going on behind the hills next to the highway. The things that are kept out of sight from the general population out here (and in many other places around the country) would break the hardest heart. Check out a documentary called “Kilowatt Ours” for more about MTR coal mining and what each of us can do about it.

Finally, the next time any of us turns on a light switch or fires up an appliance, we would be wise to remember people like Maria, Larry, and Bobby – because, odds are, somewhere out in Appalachia, a piece of mountain just disappeared and real people suffering as a result.

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