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January 15, 2013

BEAM: Go tell it on the overly mined mountain

I’m not much of an environmentalist. Sure, we have tried going green at home, but to the annoyance of my husband, my recycling tends to amount to stockpiling a ton of dirty aluminum cans and greasy bottles in the far corner of the garage.

Hoarding doesn’t equate to reprocessing, so I’ve been told, although the mice who frequently feast on the leftover nibblings do seem to appreciate my effort.

Likewise, one of the only times our household conserves water is when the kids forget to flush. Mind you now, without children and men’s unintentional savings, the Ohio River may have been renamed the Louisville Creek many years ago. Never look a gift horse, or bad habit, in the mouth; just make sure not to smell either of them.

Another type of gift fell into my lap last Thursday night, a type we should all appreciate when it’s delivered. During the Carnegie Center for Art and History’s panel discussion about mountaintop removal and renewable energy, I received the gift of awareness. Maybe there’s hope that I can be an environmentalist yet.

Don’t know much about mountaintop removal, also called MTR? Neither did I. According to panel member Anne Caudill — who for more than a decade has been an advocate for Appalachia — MTR started when companies tried to obtain ridgeline coal seams. Traditionally, miners extracted coal through underground methods. In order to ensure the structural integrity of the mountain, companies needed to leave a deep barrier of rock around the inner chamber. This buffer zone can contain up to 40 feet of untapped coal.

When the demand for the fuel increased mid-century, the coal companies decided to use surface mining and drill from atop the mountain to go after the ridgeline remnants.

“In some cases, it was so cheap to do that they took the ridgeline coal where the interior coal hadn’t been mined,” Caudill said. “That was totally wasteful because there was no way you could ever, ever get to it unless you take the whole top of the mountain off. And that’s where mountaintop removal began.”

Really, the name “mountaintop removal” says it all. Do a quick Google search on MTR photos and you’ll see what I mean. The companies use explosives to blast away the summits of the mountains. Meanwhile, the rock rubble is placed in something called valley fills down in local hallows.

According to Appalachian Voices, “more than 7 percent of Appalachian forests have been cut down and more than 1,200 miles of streams across the region have been buried or polluted between 1985 and 2001.”

Besides destroying the majestic mountains that have existed on this planet for more than 480 million years and their ecosystems, this mining practice also releases some pretty nasty toxins into the air and the local water supply. Samples from nearby water sources have tested positive for high levels of cancer-causing chemicals as well as heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury.

Recent studies have shown that counties near MTR areas had higher rates of certain types of birth defects. Sciencedaily.com also reports of a 2011 analysis that found "the odds for reporting cancer were twice as high in the mountaintop mining environment compared to the nonmining environment in ways not explained by age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure or family cancer history.”

So why, with all the negatives of MTR, do businesses still continue to do it? Other than making a nice profit, coal companies say their services actually benefit communities through mountaintop development. Some of the flattened areas are used for other purposes such as recreational sites, but a 2010 study from the organization Appalachian Voices discovered 89.3 percent of the mining sites surveyed had “no form of verifiable post-mining development, excluding forestry and pasture.”

In addition, as panel member and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth volunteer Mary Battis Love explained, the Appalachian coal region tends to be a mono-economy. Given this lack of job diversification, some coal miners have become fiercely protective of their livelihood and defend MTR.

What’s interesting is that fewer employees are actually needed with MTR due to mechanization. From 1979 to 2006, the number of coal mining employees has declined by 60 percent according to Wikipedia. One can’t help but wonder how much MTR has affected this.

Some good news has recently emerged regarding the technique. Just a few months ago, Patriot Coal, one of the top MTR organizations in Appalachia, reached an agreement with several environmental groups to eventually stop large-scale MTR mining. Hopefully other companies will follow suit.

In the end, thinking MTR is bad for America doesn’t make me an environmentalist any more than fixing my kids’ cereal makes me a chef. It should just mean that I finally have found some common sense.

Now if I could only apply that knowledge to dealing with the recycling in the garage. I guess I’ll just have to take it one carbon footstep at a time.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at hoosiermandyblog@gmail.com

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