Care2 Earth Month: Back to Basics
This year, Care2 decided to expand Earth Day into Earth Month, since there is so much to explore when it comes to the environment. Every day in April, we’ll post about some of the most important topics for the environment, exploring and explaining the basics. It’s a great tool to help you get started with helping the environment — or help explain it to others. See the whole series here.
I spent many of my formidable years in East Tennessee, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. If you’ve never been to Appalachia, you should know that it’s hard to describe the mixture of lush landscape, Southern hospitality, and folklore that make it a place unlike any other in this world.
Just an hour outside the bustling city of Knoxville, where I spent my college years, you’ll find Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, it is the most visited national park in America.
While the mountain peaks located in the park are safe for now, their counterparts in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky haven’t been so lucky. These mountains, some of the oldest in the world, are being destroyed by coal mining companies. No longer content to bore below the surface of the earth in search of their black prize, these companies now use a process called mountaintop removal mining to gain easy access to the coal seams hidden underneath.
Using powerful explosives to remove the mountain tops, the process creates thousands of tons of rubble. The resulting dirt, rock, and toxic mining chemicals, referred to as “valley fill” are simply bulldozed into the surrounding valleys, choking streams, and burying plant life all in one fell swoop. Sometimes Big Coal will “reclaim” the now bald mountain top by sprinkling some top soil and a few pine seedlings where hundred year old trees used to be. But most of the time they don’t. Appalachian communities, who have lived on or around these mountains for generations are left to deal with the consequences. And they aren’t pretty.
“The negative health effects of living around mountaintop removal mining, from exposure to toxins such as selenium, mercury, arsenic, lead, copper and chromium to the increased incidence of birth defects, pulmonary disorders and hypertension in communities around mine sites, are serious and well documented,” writes Michael Diamond of Vanderbilt University. ”In addition, both workers and innocent bystanders (even those seemingly far enough away) must watch out for flyrock, which is the term used for all the dust and rock stirred up while blasting through mountains. Oftentimes this flyrock can crack and damage homes and property, and occasionally the impact of such debris can be fatal.”
The EPA, which has only recently begun to crack down on this practice, notes that mountaintop removal mining causes an increase of minerals in local water — zinc, sodium, selenium, and sulfate levels may increase and negatively impact fish and macroinvertebrates leading to less diverse and more pollutant-tolerant species. Even though these findings constitute clear violations of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has continued to issue permits for new, bigger mining operations. And fish aren’t the only wildlife to be killed by this ugly practice. Recently Care2′s Judy Molland reported that bears and cubs are being buried alive inside their dens by valley fill.
Why is mountaintop removal still happening? The answer is simple: money. Yes, coal companies and their pocket politicians will tell you that they just can’t bear to eliminate jobs by banning this practice, but that’s just an argument to distract voters from the truth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the early 1950s there were between 125,000 and 145,000 miners employed in West Virginia; in 2004 there were just over 16,000. During that time, coal production increased right alongside unemployment rates. Mountaintop removal is a mining technique designed, from the very start, to take the human labor force out of the mining process. Human beings are expensive, and require time off and benefits. The giant machines involved in mountaintop removal are cheap by comparison, they’ll work 24 hours a day without complaint, and you don’t have to worry about them getting hurt.
Yes, Appalachian families have made their living mining coal for many decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s all they’re capable of. Besides, the coal-bearing counties of Appalachia are some of the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that some of the greatest wealth is being extracted from them. These strong, skilled workers might be poor, but they’re not stupid. In fact many Appalachian residents have become environmental activists in response to the devastating toll they’ve seen mountaintop removal mining take on their health and ancestral lands.
The only ones who benefit from mountaintop removal mining are the out-of-state coal companies that practice it and reap the handsome profits. Even those of use who live far away from Appalachia share in the consequences. The coal produced by mountaintop removal mining is shipped to coal-fired power plants all over the country. Many fail to realize that the electricity they use everyday helps to continue this destructive process. But America is slowly waking up to the realities of mountaintop removal, and several states have moved to ban the use of this coal.
Corporations don’t have to worry about the consequences of their actions, but people do. We’re the ones who breathe the polluted air, drink the contaminated water, and watch our beautiful wild places destroyed in pursuit of dirty energy. It’s time to take a stand against mountaintop removal once and for all. Here’s how to get started:
1. Sign our petition to convince Congress to ban MTR and to enforce legal requirements for coal mining in Appalachia.
2. Write to your Senators asking them to support the Appalachia Restoration Act.
3. Ask your state representative to stop Big Coal from dumping toxic mining waste into streams.
4. Write to the EPA demanding that they veto all pending valley fill permits.
5. Find out how you’re connected to mountaintop removal as well as what you can do about it.
All images copyright ilovemountains.org