Lost on the Road to Oblivion

The Tragedy of Mountain Top Removal
There is no denying the fact that coal was one of the driving forces that made the United States one of the greatest industrial nations in the world. Coal fueled everything from our mills to our railroads and provided heat and cooking convenience to a growing industrialized nation. Now, over 100 years later, coal still plays a large role in our everyday lives. Long gone are our coke ovens and steam engines of the past, but we still rely heavily on the coal industry to provide an economical source of fuel. As of today around 50% of our electricity is currently produced by coal fueled power plants.

While coal still plays a vital role in today's economy, the concept of clean coal is beyond my comprehension. Growing up in the coalfields of Southwestern Pennsylvania and coming from a family of coal miners, the thought of using the words clean and coal in the same sentence would have never crossed my mind. When I hear the term used, I can't help but think that this is nothing more than another slick Madison Avenue tag line used to get us to believe the coal industry has changed. The truth is, coal is a dirty business, both literally and figuratively.

Before environmental awareness, mine runoff was an everyday occurrence in the coalfields, and an accepted fact of life. Environmental regulations have helped clean up the streams and rivers of coal country, and government regulations have helped improve mine safety; but the sad reality is that wherever coal is found poverty is close at hand. The Captains of Industry, as historians like to call them, have made great contributions to the growth of our society. Volumes have been written about their achievements and legacy, while often overlooking the labor struggles of the workers who are the real heroes of this nation. Men and women whose blood, sweat, and tears made this the greatest industrial country on earth in the last century and on whose backs the Coal Barons were able to make their fortunes. Their story so often goes untold by authors who write about the achievements of these Industrialists. Sadly, another fact of life is that the winners always write the history books.

Even though environmental awareness is on the rise, there are still many in this country who have no idea that mountain top removal is actually happening. While appalled after finding out about this mining technique, they go back to their daily lives and nothing happens to stop this tragedy because they feel either helpless to do anything or just don't care because it's not happening in their own backyard. There are a number of organizations that have sprung up to raise awareness about mountain top removal, but their words often go unheard because the coal lobby is a powerful force. Money and power buy political influence in this country and always will. Until these organizations increase their numbers to be a formidable force on Election Day, nothing will change. Politicians do understand votes. Sadly, the environmental message often falls on deaf ears because some environmentalists use extreme tactics to get their message across. In their passion to save this planet, their plan of action to raise awareness to an issue often comes off as being radical, and their enemies skillfully use this against them to paint them as just a bunch of tree hugging kooks. Most environmental groups end up just preaching to the choir. The only way to really stop this devastating mining practice will be by educating the public about mountain top removal and making a statement on Election Day.

At this point in time we will still have to rely on coal as a source of energy in the United States until alternative sources of energy are developed and built. Presently there is no other choice for an economical solution to our unquenchable thirst for electricity. For now the answer to this problem is not to stop all coal mining, just mountain top removal, and to insist on stricter regulation and demand enforcement of the environmental laws of the land. Through the Bush years environmental laws were weakened and enforcement was lax. Hopefully this will change with the new administration, but we must all understand that change will take time.

Mountain Top Removal

My approach to documenting the problem of mountain top removal is not to focus solely on the destruction, but to show the beauty of coal country and photograph what will be lost if this mining practice is allowed to continue. Rather than attacking the coal industry directly, I intend to show what happens to communities when the coal is mined out and the coal companies move on. While coal companies do provide jobs while the mines are operating, the coal industry is just a business like any other business operating in this country. The only thing they are concerned with is their bottom line. They will move on without looking back once the coal is mined out, leaving nothing behind but ghost towns and devastated mountains that can never be restored.

One of the most disheartening facts that I have found in my research since beginning this project is that the fight to stop this mining practice has been going on for decades with little success. Over the last ten years there have been mountain top removal articles published in some of the most prestigious publications and documentaries produced and shown on television, yet nothing has been done to stop this mining technique.

Mountain Top Removal

The Beauty of Coal Country
Coal is found in some of the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems in this country. From the hardwood forest and fog covered mountain tops of Pine Mountain, Kentucky to the Allegheny Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania, the Appalachian coalfields have produced some of the highest-grade coal found in this nation and mining has been a large part of the history of this region since the 1700s. The mining industry estimates that we have over 200 years of coal reserves left in the US, but according to the USGS there are less than two to three decades of mineable coal remaining in the eastern coal fields at current mining production levels. So who is right? Do the mining industry estimates include the large western coal reserves? Regardless of whose statistics are accurate, the fact remains that some day the coal will be all mined out in the Appalachians, and most likely sooner than later.

Mining is still the main industry found in many of the communities in the Appalachian Mountains, and the future of these communities is in question once the mining operations shut down. Some areas have weathered the transition from mining by capitalizing on the natural beauty of their mountains, promoting their communities as destinations for heritage and eco-tourism. Unfortunately, other communities have turned into ghost towns with their only export being their children who have moved on in search of a better life.

Areas like the eastern part of Fayette County Pennsylvania have successfully transformed their towns into travel destinations by promoting the natural beauty and outdoor activities of the county. The beauty of the Allegheny Mountains of the Appalachian region attracts visitors from all over the country who come to fish its streams, paddle its rivers, ride its bike trails, and ski its slopes. The only reason this has been able to happen is because there has been no mountain top removal done in the mountains of Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Sadly the western half of the county where the mining towns were located has not been as successful. These once bustling communities have fallen on hard times since the mines shut down. Over the last 50 years these towns have gone from bad to worse as one business after another shut their doors.

A few hundred miles to the south lies Fayette County, West Virginia. The mountains of this county, like its counterpart up north, have become a destination for visitors who come to enjoy the natural beauty of the region. Visitors from all over the world come to camp and paddle the world-class rapids of the New and Gauley rivers. While both counties have many similarities, the biggest difference between the two is that mountain top removal coal mining is currently going on in Fayette County, West Virginia.

All That Remains
Throughout the Appalachian coalfields the populations of many mining towns are divided between those who support mountain top removal coal mining and those who do not. While some view the coal industry as a plague on the landscape, others see the coal companies as saviors to communities already struggling in these hard economic times. It is hard to find a family in coal country who does not have some family member working for a coal company or some supporting industry. My own exodus south over twenty years ago began when the future success of my job selling truck parts in northern West Virginia began to look bleak due to the slowdown of mining in my territory.

Even though I grew up in coal country and came from a family of coal miners, I quickly began to realize as I began to work on this project that I must constantly remain aware that the impact of my work could affect jobs and people’s lives. It didn't matter that I once worked with the coal industry in a supporting business or that coal placed food on my family's table for the first 38 years of my life - I was now an outsider. Most of the men and women I meet will not have the same opportunities I had to move on and make a life for themselves outside the coal fields. For this reason I struggle over every word I write and every photograph I take.

While the purpose of this project may be to stop mountain top removal, it is not an attempt to stop all coal mining at this time even though coal is considered one of the major causes of climate change. This project is only an attempt to raise awareness about mountain top removal, and to encourage the coal companies to use responsible mining techniques and the elected officials in these states to begin planning for the future and looking beyond coal.

As mountain top removal continues throughout the southern Appalachians the future of these communities remains in question. While they may be experiencing a bit of economic success right now, once the mines are worked out and the coal companies move on, they will have even less than before. I have seen the future and it is called Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

Approximately 300 miles north of Pikeville, Kentucky, straight up Route 119 through the heart of the Appalachian coalfields lies the place I still call home. One hundred years ago Fayette County, Pennsylvania was one of the richest counties in the state because coal was king. With names like Frick, Thomson, and Carnegie, Fayette County once boasted that it had more millionaires than Pittsburgh; but by the late 1950s most of the coal had been mined out and the economy began a downward spiral that has continued until today. It found itself in a recession long before the current crisis we now find ourselves in today. Property values tanked long ago and still continue to decline in the once vibrant Patch towns.

The biggest difference between Pike County, Kentucky, and Fayette County, Pennsylvania, for the most part is mountain top removal has not taken place in Fayette County. With limited strip mining in the past, the mountains are still intact and are the bright spot in the economy.

Depending on whom you talk to, there are different opinions on the reason for Fayette County's decline. The politicians blame the unions and say that they weren't able to attract new industry because of the strong union influence on the county's work force. They insist that companies moved south to right-to-work states like North Carolina in search of cheap labor. Others feel that the blame lies with the elected county officials who placed all their eggs in one basket, saying they never planned for the future and became complacent because coal was king and provided jobs and a comfortable tax base. I believe there is a bit of truth in both arguments but do agree that the politicians did not have the vision to see beyond coal, and I fear that history is repeating itself in the southern coalfields.

If the Appalachian coal towns are to survive, the elected officials must do something now while there is still time. The only hope to break the cycle of poverty that is found in the Appalachians is to diversify and prepare for a future beyond coal. The coal industry enjoys being the only game in town because this gives them leverage over the politicians. The time to act is now - otherwise history will repeat itself and these beautiful little Appalachian communities will die a slow death once the coal is mined out.

After 50 years Fayette County Pennsylvania is starting to make a comeback. A new industry has arrived in the county in the form of prisons. In the next few years there will be two large prisons located in the western part of the county. While the prisons will provide around 1,400 much-needed jobs, I'm not sure if this is the kind of economic growth many of the county residents were hoping would happen.

It's all about the water
When we think about mountain top removal, we visualize devastated mountains and valleys filed with overburden from mines, but do we really understand the impact this mining practice is having on our nation's water supply? Even though the bulk of the mining is taking place in West Virginia and Kentucky the impact of this mining has the potential to create far-reaching problems.

Take the New River, which has its headwaters in the mountains of North Carolina and is considered one of the world's oldest rivers. On its journey north it passes through Virginia and West Virginia before emptying into the Kanawha River at Gauley Bridge West Virginia. From there the waters flow into the Ohio River which empties into the Mississippi before ending its journey in the Gulf of Mexico. Many tributaries of the New and Kanawha Rivers have their headwaters in the coalfields of West Virginia and empty into these river basins on their journey to the sea. As mountain top removal continues to expand and more permits are approved, the potential for polluting these rivers with heavy metals from surface mining increases.

In 2002 the Bush administration changed the clean water act by simply changing the definition of the term "fill material" to include mining waste. With a stroke of a pen the coal industry was given license to shift mountain top removal into high gear within the legal limits of the law. Currently there are two bills proposed to restore the Clean Water Act to its original form, which would put an end to valley fills and prevent industries like coal mining from using our nation's rivers as waste dumps. At this point in time it is important for all of us to become lobbyists and begin calling our representatives to support S.696 The Appalachian Restoration Act in the Senate and H.R. 1310 The Clean Water Protection Act in the House. Clean water is a right we all should enjoy in this country without fear of contamination.

Looking back over the first year of the project I remember that first trip to Kentucky back in February of 2009. Even though it was my first trip to the Kentucky coalfields I felt at home. There was a familiarity about the place. It felt good to be back in coal country. A funny thing happened on that first trip. The song "Sixteen Tons" made popular by Tennessee Ernie Ford back when I was a kid, kept popping into my head. For those of you too young to remember it, the chorus goes something like this.

“Sixteen tons what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don't call me cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store.”

The song seemed so fitting considering the circumstances I found on that trip and the many other trips I made in 2009.

Over the last year I have met so many people and made some new friends like Sr. Kathleen Weigand OSB who invited me to Kentucky for my first view of mountain top removal. Her photo of the boulder in the home on Caney Fork Road is the one I've used on this website to show what home owners living near mine sites have to deal with on a daily basis. People like Bev May, who successfully organized her beautiful little valley of Wilson Creek to stop the mining proposed for her valley. Men like Larry Gibson on Kayford Mountain and Rick Handshoe from Floyd County, Kentucky, who have taken up the fight to protect the mountains around their home places. All have become activists, not because they are tree huggers, but in an attempt to protect the land they love and grew up roaming as children. They all became activists out of necessity.

As the first year of this project comes to an end, I fear we are no closer to stopping mountain top removal than ever. I began this project as the Obama administration was taking office, and I had hoped that they would put a quick end to this tragedy. While they have made some progress, and the EPA now appears to have teeth again and has the freedom to do its job, I should have known that nothing happens quickly in Washington. I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary Coal Country. What made a lasting impression on me was not the devastation or the stories of the hard working coal miners who just want to make a living to support their families, but the brief story of Senator Jay Rockefeller. When he first ran for governor of West Virginia in the 70’s he came out against strip mining and lost to Arch Moore. Some may say that this was not the only reason that he was defeated, but I find it interesting that once he flip-flopped on strip mining and became a strong supporter of the coal industry, he has enjoyed a long and successful political career. What many coal country politicians quickly learn is if you are an enemy of the coal industry your political career will be short-lived. Unfortunately the majority of these politicians "owe their souls to the company store."

Mountain Top Removal

I guess I was naive to think that the struggle to stop mountain top removal would be close to an end by now. I should have known better. I should have realized there would be setbacks along the way and that the wheels of change move very slowly. Regardless of these apparent setbacks, the fight must go on. As Edmund Burke once wrote "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

To be continued…

© Carl V Galie Jr

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