Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Coal in Appalachia

I love West Virginia. It has to be one of the most beautiful states I've visited. There is so much to see and do in the outdoors in that state that the worst thing about the situation is having to make difficult choices about what to see and what to miss on a particular trip. It's not called the "Mountain State" for nothing. It seems to be covered in mountains and hills, with hardly a level spot to be found within its borders. This makes for spectacular scenery, soaring peaks, plunging valleys, gorges, whitewater, forests, wildlife....

It's a jewel of scenic beauty.

Much of the state's economy has been built on the relative wealth of the fossil fuels which lie just below the crust of the land. There is petroleum, natural gas, and coal. West Virginia is well known for its vast coal seams. For over 100 years it has been home to industries that dig into those mountains and hills gouging out the black, sooty fuel that has largely powered our economy since the days of the steam engines and the railways that depended upon that coal. Later, we powered our electric plants with the dirty stuff, and this is still mainly how we light our homes and businesses.

Coal has not been kind to West Virginia. Many of the people of that state depend upon coal mining to put food on their tables and clothes on their backs. This is a true thing. But if the coal industry is so good for that state, why does it constantly rate at or near the bottom of just about any list you could name--health care, education, infrastructure, tax base, quality of life, etc. If coal is so great why have the companies that make billions from the mining of this fuel done so damned little to lift up the people who do the heavy, dangerous work in procuring it?

Coal mining has also left a hideous legacy of pollution across the state of West Virginia. Streams were once fouled almost beyond recovery. It was only when regulations forced mining companies to work safely that the state's streams and rivers began to recover. It was only when the workers unionized and the federal government imposed regulations that it became safer to descend into those mines to get at the coal that we have needed to power this nation. Coal companies have never acted responsibly. At every turn they had to be forced to do the right thing.

I had always heard about the practice of "mountaintop removal" coal mining. I'd read about it, but scarcely believed it. Briefly, what these mining companies do is completely destroy entire mountains to get at coal seams. This is easier and cheaper than digging mines. But it destroys the entire ecosystem where this insanity is in practice. The forests are felled and the soil completely scoured away. Then the bedrock is blasted off and the mountaintops pushed down into the watersheds as an open-pit mine is produced as machines dig down to get at the coal. The aquifer is fouled pretty much beyond repair. The mountain is gone. The valleys are buried. The native forests are eliminated. A foul, polluted pit and a hideous scar upon the land is all that remains. It is insanity on a level that is almost impossible to comprehend. It is pure fucking evil.

The corporations that engage in this despicable poisonous act of violence against Earth and everything that lives upon it accomplished the permission to do this by lying. Small operation coal miners whose operations generally consisted of a single bulldozer, one dump truck, a loader, and perhaps a work crew of five or six were encouraged to lobby congressional members to be able to move a bit of dirt to get at small amounts of coal. Legislation was written and passed to allow these small miners to work in such a manner, moving small hillocks and mounds to access isolated patches of coal. But of course this had all been a smoke screen to allow the huge operations to follow suit, to tear down entire mountain ranges and to despoil encompassing watersheds in their mad greed to get at the coal seams in a far cheaper and far more destructive method.

This complete and totally evil insanity needs to come to an end. And the way that these energy companies accomplished their pernicious goals should be studied carefully so that they cannot repeat the process elsewhere.

If you visit West Virginia I hope your stay is not spoiled by the accidental viewing of one of these monstrous mountaintop removal mines. And if you visit there to see the places spared of this evil, you will most likely see all kinds of propaganda promoting the positive aspects of coal mining. But keep in mind that coal is no friend of the people of West Virginia. It has spawned an industry that has kept the people of West Virginia locked into a kind of abject slavery to the companies that control the mineral rights there.

To Hell with coal, and to Hell with the disgusting outfits who profit from its removal.

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