Appalachia Fights for a Green Future

Appalachian residents are calling on environmental protection agencies to stand up to mountaintop removal.
Mountaintop Removal, photo by Kent Kessinger

Scarred mountain near Rawl, West Virginia. Largely hidden from most Americans, a highly destructive form of coal mining called mountaintop removal has devastated 1 million acres in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. People across America use electricity that is at least partially generated by mountaintop removal coal, but it is a small amount that could easily come from cleaner sources of energy. 

© Kent Kessinger. Appalachian Voices flight courtesy of Southwings.

A call went up from the coalfields of West Virginia on Monday. Outside the headquarters of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the voices of hundreds of people from across West Virginia and the country sounded as one.

Coalfield residents, clergy, human rights and environmental justice activists, and concerned fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters decried mountaintop removal and the devastation it wreaks upon Appalachian families and communities: “When a girl in fifth grade can’t do a math problem as quickly as she should, that’s what mercury from coal-fired power plants does to a child’s mind,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told the protesters.

Last Mountain Standing
Coal River Mountain offers a choice between mountaintop removal coal mining and a wind farm.

For opponents of mountaintop removal coal mining, tensions are running particularly high. Blasting has already begun on Coal River Mountain, the last intact mountain in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley and the site of a proposed wind farm. “What would you call someone who blasts your country with ammonium nitrate explosives every day and poisons your people with mercury?” Kennedy asked. “Terrorists!” came the loud reply.

For many of the protesters, though, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) is as much to blame for the destruction as Massey Energy, the coal company that actually carries out the blasting.

Surrounded on all sides by the decapitated, toxic remains of mountains forever ruined by the coal industry, Coal River Mountain has exceptional potential as a site for industrial-scale windmill energy. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, heedless of the will of the people of West Virginia, of reason, and of science, has issued permits that will allow Massey Energy to destroy the mountain and the wind potential it possesses.

The WVDEP issued the Bee Tree Permit, which green-lighted the first stage of blasting, already under way. The permit area is located adjacent to the Brushy Fork Impoundment, the largest earthen dam in the Western Hemisphere.  That dam is permitted to hold over nine billion gallons of toxic sludge. Blasting is taking place within little more than two hundred feet of that fragile construct of dirt and rocks, and a failure of the dam would spell epic disaster for everyone downstream of the sludge.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is not only aware of the destruction; it enables the blasting—with full awareness that Massey Energy itself has admitted that if the dam fails, almost a thousand innocent human beings would die immediately.

Those assembled Monday know it, too, and insisted the WVDEP act to protect both the environment and the people who live in it. From Zoe Beavers, who described the ruination of her land and community, to 81-year-old Roland Micklem, who is in the midst of a fast to mourn the wreckage of West Virginia, to Lorelei Scarbro, who lives at the foot of Coal River Mountain and whose home is in dire jeopardy, people from affected communities gathered on Monday to make an unassailable case for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to live up to its name.

They are demanding that the WVDEP protect and preserve Coal River Mountain. If it fails to do so, they want the EPA to strip the WVDEP of its authority to issue permits for mountaintop removal under the Clean Water Act.

On Monday, December 7, 2009, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection learned that the eyes of the world are upon it. From Copenhagen to Coal River, from Whitesville, West Virginia to Woy Woy, Australia, from Pettry Bottom to Phoenix, people participated in the rally (both locally and via the live Internet radio broadcast), declaring their solidarity with Appalachian residents who want their government to protect them from the dangers of mountaintop removal.

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask that American citizens be unmolested by explosions in their backyards and unthreatened by the prospect of a repeat of nightmares like the massive sludge spill that occurred in 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky or the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster, when another coal sludge impoundment dam burst—four days after being declared “satisfactory” by a federal inspector.

Nor does it seem out of line to demand that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection—and other government agencies ostensibly designed to protect the environment and those who live in it—stop permitting dangerous and destructive practices when greener ones, like the Coal River Mountain wind farm, are available. On Monday, Appalachian people and their allies declared their absolute right to participate in the coming greening of America. That greening, they all agreed, begins on Coal River Mountain.

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