Moving Mountains

The Human Costs of Our Coal Economy

photo of a mine, moonscape-likeVivian Stockman/

West Virginia author (and one-time third party candidate for governor) Denise Giardina once observed: “Mountains imprint themselves upon the souls of those who know them as children.”

It remains to be seen how the dead mesas left behind by the coal industry will imprint themselves upon those who witness the obliteration of one mountain after another.

The Appalachians are among the oldest mountains in the world, more ancient than the Rockies or the Himalayas. Naturally thick with timber, they are rich with biodiversity. The Appalachians are the country of Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton, the first frontier encountered by settlers after the Revolution. They are a vital part of America’s history and culture.

In the coalfields of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and to a lesser degree in Tennessee and Virginia, the soft maternal hills of the Appalachians are being annihilated by an industrial horror called mountaintop removal coal mining.

Nothing in this new method of extracting coal recalls the traditional image of a grimy miner emerging from a dark tunnel in the ground. Instead, it’s a process carried out by giant machines, huge explosions, and very few men. Some who live near the mining see in mountaintop removal (MTR) a pernicious form of industrial terrorism.

A primary agent in MTR is the same crude chemical compound used by Timothy McVeigh to bring down the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Known by the acronym AMFO, it is a volatile mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. Four thousand pounds of it destroyed the Murrah Building. An average individual blast on a Kentucky hill being “topped” uses 10 times as much.

Surface dirt and rock loosened by the explosions is bulldozed over the side of the hill, another series of blasts is executed, and the bulldozers go to work again. The operators don’t care what’s at the foot of the hill. Seven hundred miles of Kentucky streambeds have been buried by the process, along with other important ecological and historic sites.

A man from Pike County, Kentucky, who wasn’t willing to be quoted by name, remembers a place from his boyhood, a stream-fed glen between two high hills, with a small cemetery on one of the slopes. The cemetery was noteworthy because a veteran of the Revolutionary War was buried there. Today the stream and the graves lie under hundreds of feet of dirt and rock.

“When I was a kid that was my ‘secret place,’” the Pike County man says. “It was where I went when I wanted to be alone. It was beautiful, peaceful, and it was a comfort to go there. I can’t even find it today. It is just gone.”

The AMFO blasting process is repeated until a thin seam of coal is exposed. Then an enormous crane lifts a monster shovel called a “dragline,” and pulls it across the coal, taking a house-sized hundred-ton bite out of the hill with each pass. When the coal seam is depleted, there’s more blasting until a new layer is exposed, and the dragline goes to work again.

When all the coal is taken, what’s left is a flattened hill, and a valley filled with what was once the hill’s crown. The heavy equipment moves on, leaving another stretch of artificially leveled ground the coal industry insists is an improvement over nature.

Those who’ve attempted to use the newly flattened earth have, by and large, been disappointed. The new federal prison in Martin County, Kentucky, is built on a former MTR site. Defenders of the mining method are pleased to describe the prison as reclaimed land put to good use. The implication seems to be that Kentucky ought to think of penitentiaries as a growth industry, a profitable way to fill empty dead places where mountains once rose.

But the supporters of MTR don’t talk much about how the prison project went $60 million over budget, due mostly to buildings settling. The devastated ground just can’t support anything that heavy.

And they don’t mention the nickname locals pinned to their new pen: Sink Sink.

High Costs, Few Jobs

Nearly all the coal from MTR is burned to produce electricity. The 19th-century technology of burning coal to create steam to spin turbines remains in the 21st century the single most important source of the nation’s energy. The United States’ 600 coal-fired power plants produce more than half of the country’s electricity, and a single coal-fired generating plant can burn a hundred railroad carloads a day. The price of coal has climbed steadily for several years, and this has helped fuel the MTR industry. The coal-producing counties of eastern Kentucky have been called “the Saudi Arabia of fossil fuel,” but the people who live there aren’t getting rich from it.

Though the coal industry boasts about the high-paying jobs created by MTR coal mining, the process is not labor intensive. At any given moment, there may be only a dozen men working on an MTR site, and jobs directly related to the extraction of coal have fallen by 60 percent in 25 years. And of course, when the mountain’s gone, so are the local jobs.

Kentucky’s coal counties are the poorest regions in the state, with the highest rates of unemployment. When presidential candidate John Edwards included Kentucky in his recent “poverty tour,” his stops were Prestonsburg and Whitesburg, communities deep in coal country. Forty years ago, when Robert F. Kennedy did his own poverty tour, he visited the same region, stood on the same courthouse steps, and made the same promises. As one coalfield resident said, “We’ve been missionaried to death, but not much changes.”

In the spring of 2005, author and environmentalist Wendell Berry began a series of “Kentucky Authors Mountaintop Removal Tours.” His idea was that if authors saw – and heard – firsthand what was happening in the coalfields, they would write about it, talk about it, ensure that Kentuckians would get at least a glimmer of an idea of the extent of the ecological disaster being driven by the coal industry’s reliance on mountaintop removal.

The tours begin at the Leslie County farm of Daymon Morgan, whose memories of the area stretch back over 80 years. Morgan came home from World War II and bought a hundred acres where he’d hunted squirrels and gathered ginseng as a youngster. He raised a family on his farm, and for more than 10 years, he’s resisted selling his acres to the coal companies who’d like to “top” them.

Most of his neighbors did sell their property. Morgan’s acres are far enough out in the country that 15 years ago, he couldn’t hear traffic noise from his porch. Now the diesel roar of trucks and draglines fills the air, along with the irritating “beep-beep-beep” of
monster machines shifting into reverse.

Wendell Berry’s “witness tours” include examining MTR sites on the ground, and from small planes during fly-overs. The tours end at the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, where coal country residents talk about what it means to live in the vicinity of mountaintop removal sites.

Poisoned Wells

Rully Urias is one of the coal country residents the writers hear from. Urias went to Pittsburgh a few years ago to visit his sister. He stayed long enough to fall in love with a young woman named Erica. They married, and he brought his new wife to the family homestead at Island Creek in Pike County. Urias’s family has lived there for nearly a century and a half, and he and Erica set to work restoring the original long house that still stands where his great-great-great-grandfather raised it.

About the time their daughter was born, mountaintop removal began crowding ever closer to their home.

In rural Kentucky counties, it is not uncommon to find people still using wells for drinking water, and that was the case with the Urias family. The constant blasting on the mining sites around them shifted the water table, and their well dried up. When they had another well dug, it failed as well. So far a third well – which cost four or five thousand dollars to drill – hasn’t dried up, but the chemical-laden water used to wash the coal loaded off the devastated hills around the Urias homestead has leached into the groundwater table. Arsenic levels in the one well that hasn’t gone dry are 130 times in excess of what the EPA deems safe.

When their daughter was an infant, the Uriases were advised by their pediatrician to be very careful that when bathing the child, water didn’t get in her mouth. The Uriases live where McDonald’s hamburgers, cable television, broadband Internet, and the other accoutrements of modern life are readily available. Still, they have to be careful their water doesn’t poison their child.

Rully is diabetic, and drinks lots of water – bottled water that the coal company responsible for poisoning the family well has grudgingly agreed to supply.

Most of their neighbors have sold out to the coal operators, and the Uriases have been offered cash for their acreage as well. But like a lot of Kentuckians, Rully Urias feels a visceral connection to the land where his father and grandfathers and great-grandfathers walked. He doesn’t want to sell, and he won’t sell.

Flying Rocks
aerial photo of a coal slurry pondCourtesy Southwings When a coal slurry pond in Martin County broke in 2000, an estimated 300 million gallons of toxic sludge
poured into nearby creeks and streams. It was the worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi.

Tainted water isn’t the only consequence of living near a mountaintop removal site. When the coal company is blasting, stray chunks of shattered hill sometimes land in the Urias’s yard like bombs, though the house is more than 400 yards from the nearest active MTR site. These fragments are called “fly rock,” and the coal operators insist they’re within their rights to use explosives so powerful they send chunks of flint and granite a quarter mile or more.

Asked what he’d want someone who may never see the Kentucky hills to know about MTR coal mining, Urias doesn’t hesitate to answer. “They need to know the real price of their ‘cheap’ electricity,” he says. “They need to know it’s destroying our land, and even threatening our lives.”

A Plague of Floods

Truman Hurt has lived on Montgomery Creek in Perry County, Kentucky for all of his 65 years. He’s the pastor of the Kodak Church of the True and Living God, but salvation isn’t all he wants to talk about. “Mountaintop removal affects all of us,” Hurt says, his voice heavily accented with an old-fashioned Kentucky drawl. “The blasting shakes our houses like one earthquake after another, cracks walls and foundations and sometimes fly rock falls down on us like it’s raining rocks.”

Truman talks about the flash floods that come roaring off the denuded hills. Left alone, the trees and mosses and grasses native to the Appalachians hold water after a rain, and release it gradually. But when all the greenery is removed in the course of topping a mountain, water comes rolling off the high ground as if it were a Walmart parking lot. Communities that seldom flooded now have annual floods, and some have two or three floods a year.

“It’s getting worse,” Hurt says. “The quality of our water’s affected, and nothing will grow where the coal people have been. There’s no grass, nothing but maybe a few stunted little locust trees. They take a beautiful mountain, flatten it, and leave a desert where there’s no rabbits nor squirrels nor groundhogs. They claim elk will live where they’ve done mountain-topping, but I’m not sure of that.”

Using lots of fertilizer, the coal companies do manage to grow a ground cover called lespedeza on mining sites they say have been reclaimed. Lespedeza is not native to Kentucky and is considered invasive. In the last decade, it has escaped into previously untouched forest around MTR sites, and is now threatening native grasses, wildflowers, and herbs.

Black Water

Sometimes the floods are poisoned. In October 2000, a Martin County slurry pond – a reservoir used to hold the thick sludge from an MTR operation – broke through an underground mine shaft and in a few hours dumped 300 million gallons of thick, toxic water into the community. This spill was the worst ecological disaster ever to occur east of the Mississippi River, and the scale of damage was incalculable. It’s informative to contrast the Martin County spill – about which most people know nothing – with the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, which is universally infamous. The Exxon Valdez accident dumped eleven million gallons of crude oil into a place where hardly any humans lived. The Martin County incident sent 25 times as much contaminated sludge, thick as volcanic lava, into valleys and hollows that were home to a great many people.

The impact of the spill ranged far beyond Martin County. Three weeks after the slurry pond broke the Ohio River – from which numerous communities in three states get their water – ran black. A Louisville company contracted to clean up the mess boasted that one year after the accident, it had managed to “restore” one mile of Martin County’s Wolf Creek.

It could have been worse. No lives were lost in Martin County, unlike the similar Buffalo Creek incident of 1972, when 125 West Virginians died in the aftermath of a similar slurry pond break.

There are about 120 other wastewater ponds in Kentucky alone, all of them similar to the one that broke in 2000. It isn’t a question of whether or not another spill will occur in the current state of affairs – but and issue of when, and where.

Fools and Environmentalists

photo of earthmoving equipmentPhotos.comDraglines take out house-sized chunks of rock with each pass.

In Kentucky, the chief administrative officer of a county is called the “judge executive,” and Carroll Smith served three terms as such for Letcher County. An opposing candidate who was well-financed by coal operators defeated him in last year’s election, and Smith doesn’t think he’ll be involved in politics anymore. But he’s still outspoken and unapologetic about his opposition to the coal industries.

At a recent family reunion, someone took Carroll’s wife to task for an interview he gave to the Lexington Herald-Leader, eastern Kentucky’s most widely read newspaper. “What did your man mean,” she was asked, “when he said ‘There’s two kinds of people: fools and environmentalists’?” Smith laughs when he tells how in a few minutes, his wife had her interrogator calling himself an environmentalist; Smith won’t retract the statement.

“The coal counties are the poorest parts of Kentucky for lots of reasons,” he says. “Part of it is plain old exploitation, and part of it is the fact the real wealth of the area belongs to absentee owners who don’t care what happens here, so long as they make money.”

Smith doesn’t believe the rest of America wants Appalachian Kentucky to be a terrible place to live. “It’s like this,” he says. “A lot of people don’t think about what it takes to put a steak or a hamburger on their plate, don’t consider what a bloody business it was getting it there. And they don’t understand that ‘cheap’ energy has a price too, in lives and damage to the environment, to our water, to our air, to everything we touch or that touches us.”

Bob Sloan is a Kentucky novelist and commentator who lives on 30 hilly acres east of Morehead with his wife, Julie. His Appalachian commentaries have appeared on NPR and in The Christian Science Monitor and the Lexington Herald-Leader. His most recent novel is Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees. He does not have, and is not pursuing, an MFA.

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