by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
The Appalachian forest is the oldest and richest ecosystem north of the equator, having survived the Pleistocene ice era and provided the seed stock that reforested the continent. Appalachia has 80 species of trees and more biodiversity per cubic meter than anywhere on the continent.
Now the Massey Energy coal company, the largest practitioner of mountaintop removal, and a few corporate cronies are accomplishing what the Pleistocene could not: flattening Appalachia’s mountains, obliterating those ancient forests and the historic landscapes where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone roamed and which birthed country music, NASCAR races and rough-hewn heroes for every American war. Using mammoth machines designed to replace human workers, and explosives with the power of a Hiroshima bomb each week, coal companies have already flattened 1.4 million acres, buried nearly 2,000 miles of streams and blown up 500 of America’s oldest mountains.
Industry’s claim that mountaintop removal brings prosperity to the region is a demonstrable lie. To the contrary, the out-of-state companies and Wall Street banks that control Appalachian coal are liquidating the resources of the region while impoverishing its residents. West Virginia, ground zero for the plundering of Appalachia, is blessed with some of the country’s richest resources yet is America’s 49th poorest state. In fact, coalfield counties throughout the region have some of the highest poverty levels in the nation.
Mountaintop removal is incompatible with either economic development or human habitation. Once-thriving communities like Whitesville, Marsh Fork, Shumate and Lindytown are now ghost towns dotting the coalfields. They stand emptied by residents fleeing the blasting, the choking dust, dried-up and poisoned wells, disappeared and contaminated streams, slurry spills, floods, landslides, mudslides and the murderously overloaded coal trucks that speed down narrow mountain roads. In fact, coal companies engage in a deliberate policy of buying and closing coal towns and paying the residents to leave. Then, after a few short years of production, the companies leave too, abandoning depopulated hollows and barren moonscapes that are useless for economic development or functioning ecosystems.
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts has observed that, through Massey’s brand of mountaintop removal, CEO Don Blankenship has “caused more suffering to more people in Appalachia than any other human being.” Both the Catholic and Presbyterian churches have condemned mountaintop removal as “sinful” because of its impact on God’s creation and Appalachia’s communities. Morality aside, mountaintop removal is undeniably a criminal enterprise. Mr. Blankenship acknowledged, in a recent debate with me, that mountaintop removal cannot be accomplished without violating the law. His company paid a record $20 million penalty for 60,534 Clean Water Act violations it admitted committing between 2000 and 2006, including spills of deadly chemicals like arsenic and selenium illegally dumped into Appalachia’s waterways. Thanks to the coal industry, every waterway in central Appalachia is now contaminated with dangerous levels of heavy metals like mercury. But the fines are merely a business expense, which explains why Massey has since admitted to 12,500 more Clean Water Act violations.
Coal companies avoid serious legal consequences for their crimes by subverting democracy, corrupting elected officials, buying judgeships, capturing the regulatory agencies, muzzling public participation and obscuring government transparencies. Ironically, mountaintop removal is only profitable due to huge public subsidies. A recent study on the impact of coal on Kentucky’s state budget concluded that the industry generated roughly $528 million in tax revenues in 2006.
However, placating King Coal cost the Bluegrass State $642 million to maintain thousands of miles of coal roads and other public subsidies – a net loss of $115 million annually.
The Kentucky study did not even consider the public health consequences of mining or its many other externalized costs. The Appalachian Regional Commission recently concluded that Appalachians suffer the worst health in nation and the coal mining areas suffer from higher morbidity and mortality than anywhere else in the region. The closer you are to a coal mine the sicker you’re likely to be. The ARC study confirmed the finding of another 2009 study by West Virginia University showing that health costs in coal mining areas exceed the economic contributions of the entire coal industry by up to $50 million annually.
The coal barons who have shed 90 percent of their workforce over the last 40 years in a ruthless campaign of mechanization now shed crocodile tears for the 6,000 strip miners who they claim will lose their jobs when mountaintop mining is abolished. But this is another canard. They know that underground mining that will replace it employs many more miners per ton than strip mining. Another industry myth is that ending mountaintop removal would cause higher energy prices.
But only about 5 percent of the nation’s electric power comes from mountaintop removal. A 2009 study by Synapse Energy Economics found that the cost impacts would be insignificant.
It’s not a good thing for Appalachia, America, or democracy when corporations own the landscape and drive people off the land. West Virginians, Virginians, Kentuckians and Tennesseans are proud of their mountain heritage and they dearly love the hills and hollows. A robust majority want to see mountaintop removal ended. Even West Virginia’s senior senator, Robert Byrd, acknowledges the growing consensus against this extreme strip mining. They know that Appalachia at long last must move toward a diversified economy that will provide sustainable jobs and relieve the state of boom-bust cycles that spiral always toward poverty and tyranny.
Kennedy is senior counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of Waterkeeper Alliance.