The Appalachian mountain region is home to an old culture devoted to tradition, storytelling, and in many places coal mining. The hills themselves are said to be among the oldest mountains on the planet. These ancient and worn ridges of the Appalachian region don’t project the magnificence of the Rockies but are uniquely humbling to behold. For a long time, communities across Appalachia have made their livelihoods in valleys where generations of people raised their families around and in the coal mining industry. These communities and ancient hills are now threatened by innovation in coal mining that is able to not only assess if a coal seam is near the top of a ridge, but actually blow that ridge off of the mountain itself in order to expose and mine its coal. Commonly called Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR), this technology has created a desperate need for more research into the effects of such a land changing system and is causing outrage among activists, both for the environment and for the well being of Appalachia. With alternative energies constantly being researched, attempted, and utilized, it seems shameful to destroy this valuable region, its animals, flora, streams and culture to produce electricity so regularly wasted in broader culture. Although coal is a trusted source of generating energy, mining operations using MTR in the Appalachian mountains are tragically destructive to the natural environment in that region because of water pollution, negative effects of the changing landscape on streams and animals, and the ways that pollution destroys the area and hurts its inhabitants.
Photographs of either mining operations or locations that are supposedly in a reclamation phase offer tragic visual evidence of what happens geologically to Appalachian mountaintops during and after MTR mining. The scene is shocking, as in the middle of pristine forest, MTR mining operations appear to be deeply scarred amputees of mountains, crippled by their loss of rock and timber. Emma Marris, the author of one review of two recent documentaries on the topic of MTR mining for Nature magazine describes the visual: “Both films feature aerial shots of the mines, which look as if someone has skinned the top halves of mountains down to the rock, then snapped off the peaks (Marris, 2008, p.158)”. Her assessment is accurate.
In order to gain access to the coal at or near a mountain’s peak, a mining company removes part of the mountain itself. This is done by explosion or industrial shovel, and the displaced earth removed must then be dealt with. The term used for rock and dirt blown from the ridge by the intrusion is called overburden. Overburden is moved from the place nature put it to any valley below. The crumbled rock of different sizes is then referred to as mine spoil. Settlements of mine spoil form a new geological landscape which differ in degrees of stability and are sometimes used as created space to develop buildings and roads, though the integrity of these settlements in terms of safety vary (Karem, Kalinski and Hancher, 2007, p. 345). Proponents of MTR mining suggest that potential development once a mining operation has gone through reformation is good for the region, and that it is even an opportunity for sustainable economic development. Reclamation of mined land in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia can include or have included the development of golf courses, hospitals, Walmarts and housing developments (Gardner and Sainato, 2007, p.50). While the Appalachian region is stereotyped in our consciousnesses as being desperate for economic development, there is far more evidence to suggest that the region overall maintains attitudes that prefer the hills to be untouched, rather than have a new space for a Walmart.
From their harmless state where nature intended them to be, the tops of mountains after removal termed overburden and then mine spoil cause an array of problems. In their paper titled “Settlement of Mine Spoil Fill from Water Infiltration: Case Study in Eastern Kentucky,” Karem, Kalinski and Hancher describe the three primary causes of mine spoil settlement that would cause damage or danger to structures built atop. They are creep, dry crushing, and hydro-compression, where hydro-compression is the most dangerous. The paper describes hydro-compression as the wetting of the mine spoil which would cause it to crumble and settle, the causes of this are seeping of rain water, septic systems, and infiltration of groundwater into the mine spoil settlement. They note that this material can and often does settle to a significant degree which provides a fragile foundation at best (p. 346). Claims that development of offices and roads on valleys filled with mine spoil are economic opportunities are then invalidated when considering the perspective that these areas are often dangerous due to settlement.
While the above research focuses on the risks posed by water systems to the displaced mountaintop known as mine spoil, it could be suggested that this man-made problem is evidence to the fact that the unnatural valley fill becomes intertwined with surrounding water systems, the consequences of dislodging spoil and it’s settlement in surrounding valleys include the burial of at least 2,000 streams and headwaters that all flow, or used to flow, into the Mississippi River (Holzman, p. A477).
Overburden caused by MTR mining causes an even still wider spectrum of destruction. One of many concerns about this destruction is related to the area’s water systems. The integrity of the region’s water systems is in jeopardy because of displacement of overburden from the mountain’s ridges to the valley, which threaten to bury headwaters and streams. This is adjoined with the toxic realities of what is known as slurry. In essence, slurry is soap scum. Created during the process of cleaning mined coal, slurry must be disposed of, and that is done by injecting it into old and abandoned mine shafts or otherwise plunging it into the ground where it is likely to leach toxic chemicals into ground water (Holzman, 2011, p.A477).
David Holzman reports in Environmental Health Perspectives about the potential for pollution regarding slurry. He states that there are several opportunities for the complex and varying combinations of chemical deposits to enter water systems, whether by spoil or slurry. Holzman cites Professor of Environmental Science at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, Scott Simonton, who reports that there is little to no dispute among players in the coal mining industry as well of course among its critics that mining does effect groundwater and contaminates it, and that this contamination will travel from the immediate area of the operation. Essentially, slurry invades water systems surrounding mining operations, but claims made to defend this widespread conclusion are based on the idea that the impact of slurry on water systems is harmless (Holzman, 2011, p. A478).
However, of particular concern when it comes to the certain impact on watershed downstream of spoil fills is a known chemical toxin, selenium (Lindberg,et al., 2011). Selenium poses a significant threat to aquatic life in Appalachia’s water systems, as well as aquatic plant life. Regarding human’s safety in fishing their long trusted rivers and streams, researchers advise caution in consuming fish from mountaintop-removal affected areas because of the dangers involved in selenium consumption for humans (Palmer, et al., 2011, p. 148).
Dr. Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council makes a case in the recent documentary, The Last Mountain, that tens of millions of people in areas where rivers and streams originate in coal mining country are also being affected, while geographically they may live in seemingly non-impacted areas. The film includes a graphic explaining this effect. Mining operations in West Virginia or Kentucky have potential to affect water quality for citizens of Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, or Florida through intricate webs of streams and rivers (Bingham, Grunebaum, and Haney, 2011). That means that mine spoil, slurry, and associated toxins as well as known and unknown effects of those toxins on all life are not necessarily isolated in Appalachia, but carry environmental harm throughout the southeastern United States.
Appalachian households who have long trusted their drinking water have begun to report a barrage of health related difficulties and other clearly observable problems with their water. Something called slurry syndrome is reported, a combination of symptoms believed to be caused by toxic slurry infiltrating the drinking water in mining communities. Ailments include rash and diarrhea, and even changes to the victim’s dental health (Holzman, p. A480).
Pollution pathways specifically into water systems are significant culprits in the decline of well being for residents of MTR mining areas, but they are not the only ones. Research affirms that the consequences of the disaster is more far reaching than pollutants in water systems. There is also danger in confirmed hazards to air quality caused by dust from surface mining operations. Airborne pollutants are linked to increased chronic medical issues in surrounding communities. These include but are not limited to higher blood pressure, higher mortality rates, heart disease, lung disease, and kidney disease (Palmer, et al., 2011, p. 149).
In retrospectively studying the 2006 national Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, researchers Keith J. Zullig, PhD, MSPH, and Michael Hendryx, PhD, report on the “Health-Related Quality of Life Among Central Appalachian Residents in Mountaintop Mining Counties,” finding that when controlling for factors such as smoking or obesity, residents in areas where mining by MTR consistently report on their own health as being worse than those who do not live in those areas. Additionally, Zullig and Hendryx claim that that self-rated health is a mortality indicator and therefore is considered a reliable way to measure the health of a population by organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. They report that according to research in the self-rated health of residents where MTR mining takes place, there is an increased mortality risk. These residents self report that on average they experience 18 additional unhealthy days per year than respective averages in other populations. When multiplied across years in the average American lifetime, those extra unhealthy days account for close to four years, and this is associated directly with living in an area where there is MTR mining taking place. The authors are insistent that their findings suggest a major decrease in the health related quality of life for Appalachian residents (Zullig and Hendryx, 2011, p. 852).
There has been a surge of awareness regarding this issue and its far reaching effects in the last decade, and in March 2006, National Geographic published “When Mountains Move,” explaining to readers the difference between strip mining and what is truly happening in the Appalachian mountains, providing pictures to prove the drastic changes in landscape. Explanations of mining politics, cultural impacts, deforestation and the grief of Appalachian communities are all available in the documentation of writer John Mitchell and photographer Melissa Farlow’s visit to a West Virginia mining community. This article is just one available illustration of the depth of loss communities dealing with MTR mining experience.
Among the various tragedies associated with MTR mining are effects on the hilltop’s primary inhabitants, plant life. Appalachia is a wonderland in terms of medicinal plants such as ginseng and goldenseal. These have become more widely used in alternative medicine across the world and are harvested regularly in the region. While the harvesting of these plants is regulated to prevent poaching and species endangerment of these fragile, wild plants, the same careful standards are not applied to mining operations who are allowed to systematically destroy large areas of the herb’s natural habitat (Myles, 2007, p.4). While reforestation efforts are being made in Appalachia to restore valuable hardwoods and other vegetation, many concerns arise due to the reformation of the land and soil. Restoring ecosystems in these areas is extremely dependent on the success of reforestation, and the viability of the methods being used are not known for sure to be dependable as these replanted forests are too new to tell (Zipper and Burger, et al., 2011, p.751-753).
The movement by student activists and diverse members of Appalachian communities to put an end to MTR mining include the moving words and actions of any major social justice movement. Well known fiction writer Silas House is an outspoken advocate for the health and strength of the Appalachian people and their land. In one speech titled “A Conscious Heart,” given as the keynote for a conference on Appalachian studies, House advocates for the region’s citizenship to reclaim their identity as a people, to develop new pride in this identity and to not continue to tolerate mountaintop mining and the devastation it brings. According to House, this devastation includes a wearing down of the region’s sense of itself, their self esteem, and traditions. He urges Appalachia to consider the issue not only in environmental terms, but to look beyond the tangible evidence of danger to land and health, and peer deeply into the ways that MTR is threatening Appalachia in a holistic sense (House, 2008, p.7).
Heated frustration over the rights of communities and property entitlement fill any quiet moments in the study of this issue. Anthropologists, social theorists, and others in academia debate on concepts of common land and privatization, and what is best for a people. Some argue that when a people collectively hold rights to the natural world around them, that due to human nature itself some will successfully exploit it (Hasler, 2005, p.96). Others have watched in horror as their family’s centuries old cemeteries are bulldozed and the bones of their ancestors are then considered overburden (McGlynn, 2012, p.29).
A long time advocate for environmental justice, Robert Kennedy, Jr., visits Appalachian coal mining country in 2011′s The Last Mountain. With the eloquence of his family’s legacy, Kennedy speaks of a people’s right to protect their own land. He affectionately references a public’s just right to preserve their land as the film quotes the Magna Carta: “We decree that all shall have their ancient liberties by land and by water” (Bingham, Grunebaum, and Haney, 2011).
Other inspiring stories of people’s dedication to this cause, as well as information about the science associated to that dedication can be found at social justice-oriented websites like iLoveMountains.org and mountainjustice.org. These sites provide headlines about the latest demonstrations or protest, and stories of people’s changed lives because of mining by MTR. The destruction that lies in the paths of these irresponsible mining operations makes it seemingly impossible to not feel grief for the Appalachian region and its people. To some degree our greed for energy is at fault for such ancient and beautiful areas to be so drastically scarred. Power to the people who insist that it stops and that the Appalachian mountain region can rest and heal from this devastation.
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