September 30, 2011 | Climate Change, Sustainability + Energy

 My work with the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) brought me to Washington DC this spring and gave me the opportunity to visit the Appalachian Mountain area—the heart of coal country. I had wanted to visit the area for quite some time to get a firsthand look at the coal extraction process called mountaintop removal (MTR).

A single blog post could not begin to convey just how deeply this trip affected me. But I made a promise that I would help tell the story and bring attention to the plight of the people who have been so deeply affected by mountaintop removal. This post will be my first in a series.

Wind energy and wildlife

At the spring AWWI meeting, we spent time discussing our group’s research priorities and issues related to wind energy siting. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this group is working to develop wind energy responsibly while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat. This collaboration brings together wind industry companies and environmental and conservation groups. We’re sitting at the table working through tough issues like wind farm siting and bird and bat impacts so that we can help move wind energy ahead. We may not always agree on everything, but it’s safe to say that every one of us at this table see wind energy as a solution to combating climate change. And we’re committed to seeing this initiative succeed.

After the AWWI meeting, a co-worker and I took the train to the end of the line and arrived in Lynchburg,Virginia. On our first day we visited a planned community wind site—a first for the area. Our company donated a wind assessment tower to a coalition of nonprofits working on the project.

Our trip gave us a nice opportunity to connect with the landowners. They are very supportive of wind energy and have a lot of positive energy about the project. It was a nice start to our coal country visit.


If you’ve ever driven through the Appalachian region, you know how beautiful the area is. TheAppalachian Mountains are massive forested peaks—reaching heights up to 6,600 feet—with steep valleys (called hollows) in between. The valleys in between these ridges are home to the people living in small Appalachian towns and communities. Many people have a deep history in the area with generations before them having set down their roots here. Over the years, mountaintop removal has divided many families, forcing them to make tough decisions about whether to stay and try to survive or leave and look for a better way of life.

As an outsider, you don’t see anything amiss in these places—there are no obvious signs (to my untrained eye) that mountaintop removal is going on here. You don’t see the communities—homes, stores, churches—that have disappeared from the map, bought up by the coal companies as they prepare to remove the mountain towering above. There’s no hint that thriving communities once existed in many of these areas because most are gone. For the most part, mountaintop removal is kept out of sight—a well-hidden industry.

Mountaintop removal versus traditional coal mining

I learned that mountaintop removal is much different from ordinary coal mining. Traditional coal mining typically employs many people from the local area so it is a big contributor to the local economies near the mines.

In traditional coal mining, the coal is removed from inside the mountain, which is why when there is a disaster, the loss of life can be quite significant. It’s difficult and dirty work and the health impacts can be severe, but it is also sometimes the only option for folks in these areas.

Mountaintop removal is largely mechanized so it doesn’t employ as many people as traditional coal mining. In this process, the mountain is literally removed from the coal. First, trees are cut, burned and the forest’s charred remains are pushed over the side of the mountain. Then explosives are used to loosen the rocky layers that hide the coal veins. The visual (and environmental impacts) are quite startling, to say the least. What happens to the birds and bats on these mountaintops? What happens to the people living below?

Over the years, heavy metals have leached into the drinking water and soils of the communities below these MTR sites—in some cases, people still live in these communities. Coal ash and dust blanket the nearby schools and schoolyards. Rates of childhood asthma in these areas are extremely high. People living in mountaintop removal areas also have an increased cancer risk than those not living in these areas. The human impact is very real.

Drinking water is trucked into these areas, but people must pay for it. Some can afford to pay for the water, but others cannot and they must drink the contaminated water from the sources on their property.

I was also told that many of these people are farming organically. It occurred to me the contradiction here. They can call it organic farming because they aren’t applying pesticides on their gardens, but I wondered about the condition of the soil and water being used to grow their vegetables.

When I asked about the wildlife impacts from mountaintop removal, our guide reminded me that while they are very concerned about the wildlife and habitat in these areas, the scale of the human impacts are so great that they must take priority over everything else, including wildlife. They simply don’t have the time or resources to give wildlife the attention it needs.

Doing energy right

This trip began by spending three days discussing the science of wind siting and doing it right as an industry. The wind industry will continue to talk about bats and birds—as we should. Somehow though, I can’t help but feel that these discussions seem trivialized when you see what is happening in the Appalachians.

AWWI is an example of the wind industry holding itself accountable—and to a higher standard than other industries—by being proactive on the wildlife issues. I am proud of the work we’re doing. Where is the Coal Wildlife Institute? The coal industry isn’t having these discussions and clearly it should be. Yet it continues to hum along, plundering our mountaintops and harming wildlife and humans.

If we in the wind industry (and AWWI) are doing our job right, we get our feedback from nature. Birds will continue to sing and fly, bears and bats will continue to thrive, clear streams will continue to flow and we will be generating clean renewable power.

But if the coal industry is doing their job “right,” what’s their feedback? Mountaintops erased and a planet’s topography forever changed. Silence from a forest that no longer exists. Dead fish and streams polluted by heavy metals. Valleys that are no longer safe for children and their families to live.

What’s wrong with this picture?


The LastMountain

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