October 7, 2011 | Climate Change, Sustainability + Energy

I never thought I’d be so happy to see a backhoe. Here in Vermont, we’re literally digging out from a natural disaster named Irene. On August 28, Irene’s sudden heavy rains transformed our brooks and streams into raging rivers and our rivers into destructive torrents. Houses were wrecked, bridges floated off their foundations, roads were twisted and destroyed. Acres of farmland were washed away.

Now the rebuilding is underway statewide, and all the backhoes, bulldozers, graders and dump trucks are an extremely welcome and comforting sight. Every available machine and every skillful operator have been deployed for clean-up, repair and construction, working to put Vermont back on its feet before winter sets in.

But earlier this year on a trip to West Virginia coal country, I saw powerful earthmoving machinery being used to create a disaster instead of healing one, through a deeply controversial coal mining technique called mountaintop removal (MTR). I traveled with NRG Systems CEO Jan Blittersdorf to the mountains above Beckley, West Virginia to see what some have called the “Appalachian Apocalypse.” Jan shared her thoughts about our trip in a recent post and now I add my own.

500 mountains gone, and counting

This wasn’t my first trip to Appalachia. After college, I moved fromVermont to a tiny mountain town near the Kentucky/Tennessee line to serve as a community outreach worker. For two years, I drove a bookmobile up and down the hollows of those beautiful mountains, helped families connect with support services and government assistance, and worked with local residents to build community resources.

I lived under the Pine Mountain ridge, which runs 70 miles from Kentucky to Virginia. Because this ridge crosses the Cumberland Plateau coalfields, it is now under siege from mountaintop removal mining.

Traditional coal mining was never easy on the environment, but MTR is a quantum leap into unimaginable destruction. This method of coal extraction demolishes mountains from the top down, using millions of pounds of explosives to blast away hundreds of feet of rock and soil. It’s been estimated that every week, the explosive equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb is detonated on mountaintop removal sites across Appalachia.

Because Jan and I had been following this issue for several years, we thought we were prepared for what we would see in West Virginia. But there is no way to brace yourself for the shock of staring down into a blasted canyon where a mountain once stood. That emptiness, the void of something missing, is stunning.

MTR has already destroyed more than 500 mountains in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. The number is staggering. Here in Vermont, in the entire state, we have 66 mountains 1250 feet or higher, and we can’t imagine losing a single one. Our mountains are forever. But in Appalachia, mountains are NOT forever, if they stand on top of coal.

Where mountains go when they die

Mountaintops, once blasted and dug away, must be put somewhere for mining to proceed. The waste rock and soil and trees are simply pushed into the valleys and hollows below. Mountaintops end up at the mountain bottoms. And what’s at the bottom of a mountain? As we Vermonters were just reminded, nearly all mountainsides drain water into valleys to feed free-flowing brooks and streams and rivers, irreplaceable natural ecosystems. But if a mining company dumps millions of tons of rock and debris into a stream, it will either be entirely plugged up, or polluted beyond repair.

The excavation equipment used for MTR makes the machines that are patching up post-Irene Vermont look like toys. To tear away mountain bedrock takes extraordinarily huge machines – dragline excavators seven stories high, dump trucks the size of houses. Once the coal is extracted and processed, these machines are used again to dam up enormous impoundments of coal slurry, heavy metals, explosive residue, clay and silt.

What do the Appalachian people who live in and under these mountains get in this deal, beside the destruction of the landscape? The blasting, digging, and dumping drives them out of their homes, pollutes their drinking water, increases severe flooding, and exposes them to dangerous and potentially catastrophic slurry releases. A recent study by the peer-reviewed Journal of Community Health showed that the cancer rate in communities exposed to mountaintop removal is double that for people in non-mining communities.

What you can do about MTR

You can help, by informing yourself of the key issues and raising your voice in opposition to mountaintop removal. You can learn more from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Wherever I travel, I pick up rocks and pebbles to remind me of what I’ve seen. The ones I brought home from our West Virginia trip are not happy souvenirs. One is a large, jagged chunk of bedrock blasted from a mountaintop. The other is a lump of coal. Is the coal worth the loss of the mountains and all they mean for the people who live beneath them?