Imagine that one day you woke up and looked out your window to see that an entire mountain was missing. You hear constant explosions that are so violent they crack the foundation of your house. The tap water turns black. The small creek in your backyard fills with a foul smelling, poisonous sludge. Unnatural floods destroy the only bridge to your town, and even carry off your dog. Think this is a scene from a third world country or a war zone? This is happening in West Virginia, right here in the United States of America.
Last Thursday, I attended the Coastal Conservation League Film Festival. The feature film was called simply “Mountaintop Removal Mining.” This is just what it sounds like. The Coal companies literally blast up to 800 feet of elevation clear off the top of a mountain in order to access coal deposits beneath them. They use huge machines called drag lines to scrape away the tons of rock. Thanks to an administrative “correction” made in 2002 to redefine the list of acceptable fill materials, the “overburden”, which is the polite name for all the debris that used to be a mountaintop, can now be dumped directly into the valleys, choking off streams and destroying watersheds. Already over 1200 miles of streams and 400,000 acres have been destroyed in this area, and 1.4 million acres are at risk. 1.4 million acres. That is larger than the state of Delaware.
As the coal is then mined and processed, a waste product called “coal slurry” is formed. This is disposed of by injecting into abandoned mine shafts, or by creating large earthen dams and dumping the sludge into the valleys. One of the images I will never forget from the film is that of Marsh Fork Elementary School. This school is located 400 feet downhill from a dam holding back a lake containing 2.8 BILLION gallons of this toxic slurry.
Now, as someone who spent countless weekends hiking in the hills of West Virginia, or white water rafting with my family, I am horrified by what is being done to this beautiful wilderness. For the sake of argument, let’s say you are not a tree-hugger like me, and don’t care about that. Why should you care about mountaintop removal mining? The USGS estimates that if mountaintop removal continues at its current pace, over 100 million pounds of heavy metals, including Mercury and Arsenic may find their way into the water supply of cities along the east coast. It also destroys jobs. The huge drag lines take only a handful of people to operate, and replace hundreds of traditional mining jobs. All of this destruction generates roughly 5% of the usable coal in the United States.
I’ve probably depressed you enough by now, so I will close with what you can do to help. The first is to help lobby in support of the Clean Water Protection Act. Already over 152 members of congress have voiced their support as co-sponsors of this bill. Get your local congress person to join their ranks. There is a great website https://www.ilovemountains.org with tons of resources to help you do this. It’s an election year, they will listen!
The other way you can fight this is to lessen the demand. Santee Cooper is one of the only utility companies in the region proposing to build a new Coal-Fired power plant. Not only would this increase demand for coal, it would dump over 114 pounds of mercury into the Pee Dee river each year. Santee Cooper is owned by the state of South Carolina. For those of us living in South Carolina, let’s tell our elected officials we don’t need this power plant. Tell them that we cannot condone the systematic destruction of the land and people of Appalachia in the name of cheaper coal.