Appalachia, a region in the Eastern United States which myself and many others call home, is commonly recalled for the rich, distinctive culture shared among the 25 million+ people who live there. A culture deeply rooted in “older” ways of life, Appalachia has often been popularized by folklore, medicinal plants, musical instruments such as the banjo or dulcimer, and musical artists such as Dolly Parton or Rising Appalachia. Appalachia is also home to some of the oldest mountains in the world and the largest contiguous biodiversity hotspot in the nation. With a favorable climate and accommodating landscape, the Appalachian Mountains are home to species of over 6,300 plants, 250 birds, 58 reptiles, 76 amphibians, and 78 mammals. In one section of Appalachia alone, 290 species of fish have been identified— more than in all of Europe combined. Unfortunately, this important region faces a bleak future at the hands of a hugely destructive enemy: the coal industry.
Mountaintop removal coal mining, a term very familiar to residents of Appalachia, has been devastating these ancient mountains since the 1970s but receives little publicity in other parts of the nation. This destructive method of coal extraction is just as its name suggests. First, everything on top the mountain must be cleared: trees, grasses, topsoil—it all goes. The coal seams, however, do not lie directly under the surface, but deep inside the mountain. Explosives are then transported up to the bare mountaintop by the tons. In order to reach the coal, 600 feet or more in elevation is taken from the mountain. This duration of blasting shakes the grounds and infrastructure of nearby towns. The loud booms alarm animals for miles in every direction. Once the desired amount of Earth is removed, the digging begins, and the coal is taken from the mountain. At this point, what goes up must come down. The mix of toxic mining waste and crumbled mountaintop, referred to as “overburden” by the mining industry, are dumped down slopes into nearby valleys, blocking and polluting headwater streams.
This brief description of the process behind mountaintop removal coal mining hints at its dreadful implications on the delicate ecosystems of Appalachia. “If there is any life form that cannot acclimate to life deep in a rubble pile, it is eliminated,” said Judge Haden in a ruling which had attempted to curb much of the overburden dumping into West Virginia waterways. As implied, when the heavily forested mountain is transformed into a bald surface, species with the ability to flee have no choice but to leave their destroyed homes and head elsewhere, sometimes driving these wild creatures into nearby towns. The trees and plants are often burned after clearing, pushing thick smoke into the air that clogs the lungs of humans and animals. As the toxic waste and debris that are pushed from the mountaintop clog up the areas where streams begin, the water downstream experiences significantly increased levels of sulfate, selenium, and heavy metals. These drastic changes in water chemistry disturb, or even completely devastate, entire aquatic species.
The Appalachian people have called for regulations on this invasive mining countless times and the coal industry has continuously prevailed in court. During the Bush Administration, for example, a loophole under the Clean Water Act was able to reclassify this toxic mining waste as “fill material”, making it permissible to dump into headwater streams at the base of mining sites and accelerating the rate at which mountains could be destroyed. Many of the people speaking up have depended on jobs in coal mining for generations, yet have drawn the line with this method of extraction which leaves their water poisoned and the mountains turned to rubble that they have called home for hundreds of years.
Long after our nation has made the shift from coal to natural gas, and increasingly sustainable energy sources are constantly progressing, the coal industry still continues to ravage our most precious ecosystems whilst going unnoticed by most. Since it began, the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining has buried over 2,000 miles of headwater streams, destroyed an estimated 1.4 million acres of Appalachian forest, and has consumed more than 500 mountaintops that humans and wildlife alike have called home. This massive threat to our environment is sadly not a new one. The damage that has already been done is irreversible, and this destruction will continue until more voices are raised in the defense of these mountains that so many call home.