This news story originally provided by
The Lexington Herald-Leader
May 1, 2005
Devastating view from the mountaintop
Strip-mining method wrecks land, lives of its people
By Silas House
Coal mining is a part of me. My grandfather lost his leg in the
Leslie County deep mines in the 1940s. When he was able, he went
back into the mines and worked 20 more years.
My Uncle Sam was in a mining accident that left him branded by a
coal tattoo across his left cheekbone. I can recall my Uncle Jack
coming home from the mines with the coal dust so thick in his lashes
that it looked as if he had applied mascara. They all loved their
jobs. Mining allowed them to rise out of poverty.
I am proud of my grandfather's lost leg. Proud of my uncle's coal
tattoo. They are symbols of determination and hard work.
But slowly, my love for the industry turned to a love-hate
relationship. When I was a teenager, there was a strip mine directly
across from our house. We breathed the dust and listened to the
groan of machinery for more than a year. I spent long hours on the
ridge above the mines, watching and mourning the loss of the woods
and rolling pasture I had played in all my life.
It wouldn't have been so bad if the land had been treated
respectfully. But it wasn't. Trees were thrown aside like useless
things. The good topsoil was buried beneath clay and rock. Still, I
knew that coal mining was an important part of our economy.
A couple of years ago, I got my first glimpse of mountaintop
removal --in which the summit of a mountain is removed to extract
coal -- along Ky. 80 in Knott County. The mountain that just the
spring before had been crowded with a thousand redbuds was now a
barren plateau dotted by shoots of brown grass and struggling
Late last month, 14 writers met on Lower Bad Creek to view active
mountaintop removal. These were writers who are widely known and
those who are just starting out, all Kentuckians, and all concerned
We walked through a healthy forest near the mining and viewed the
wealth of herbs, plants, trees and water that was being threatened
on all sides. We looked down on a strip mine. We drove through the
valley and saw plateaus that had once been mountains on either side
We drove 20 miles to Hindman. I counted eight mountains that had
been removed along the road. Gone forever. Some were still dusty,
noisy messes of bulldozers and exposed coal seams. Others had been
reclaimed, but I saw no evidence of healthy forests or fertile
The sites are usually in isolated areas where as few people as
possible can see them. Since the coal industry's major defense is
that it's providing much-needed flat land for development, I wonder
how many people are going to drive the winding, crumbling roads into
places like Lower Bad Creek to shop or build homes on subdivided
land. Not many, I assume.
At a town meeting in Hindman, we were greeted by a
standing-room-only crowd of people who had come to share the stories
of their experiences with mountaintop removal. These people live
with mountaintop removal every day; they are a part of the land. It
is their stories that matter.
Clinton Henshoe told of the blasts that went off every two hours
throughout the sleepless nights. One of his neighbors told me that
his grandchildren wouldn't even come to stay with him because they
were afraid of the blasts.
"They think the house is going to get swallowed up," he said.
A young woman lives on a road so damaged by coal trucks that
ambulances aren't able to reach the older people who live there.
Several people told of reporting damage to government officials,
only to be told that the flooding, damaged foundations and polluted
air were all "acts of God."
One woman complained about the mining near her so much that the
company offered her 150 times the amount her property had been
appraised for. "But that's our family land," she said. "We've worked
that land for over 100 years. Our sweat and blood is in it."
There were tales of water that ran red as blood with sulfur. "Our
water smells like rotten eggs. I can't drink or cook with it," Erica
Urias said. "My husband is a diabetic and goes through about 2
gallons of water a day. We have to buy that. But I can't buy enough
water to bathe my child."
A man drilled five wells over the last year because the mining
blasts caused every one of them to go dry.
Story after story was told about valley fills, which are created
when huge amounts of earth, rock and unwanted coal and trees are
dumped into valleys, causing widespread flash flooding.
When mudslides wash out roads, the county's taxpayers pay for the
cleanup. "The company don't pay to keep up 1 inch of these roads,"
John Roark said. "They're getting filthy rich and don't put a dime
back into the community."
Four mothers who all live on the same stretch of road told of
their children killed by overloaded, speeding coal trucks.
Ernest Brewer said his property value has plummeted since mining
started on his road. He can't even take his two kids outside to
play. "If I do, they come in covered in coal dust," he said. "This
is a matter of respect."
So many stories that it would take an entire section of the
newspaper to record them all. So much pain that the entire paper
couldn't contain it.
None of these people were there with a vendetta against the coal
industry. They were there because they wanted their stories taken to
a larger audience. They were there because they care about their
children and their grandchildren and because the land is a part of
On hearing these people tell their stories, the authors were all
The president of the Kentucky Coal Association said we were
reacting with an "emotional tirade."
If the good people of Kentucky could see the ravaged
mountainsides and haggard citizens we saw, they'd be emotional, too.
I don't see how anybody could witness the pain in their fellow
human beings' faces and voices without being emotionally affected by
it. I don't think there's anything wrong with getting emotional when
my fellow Eastern Kentuckians are being done wrong. Or when I see
the land I love being abused. Everyone should be emotional about
It is mind-boggling that the whole nation is talking about Alaska
being drilled for oil, yet no one cares that Appalachia has been
systematically scalped for the last 28 years. And the speed with
which that is happening is increasing daily. As one woman at the
town meeting said, "I don't care what anybody says, the Arctic
Circle isn't a bit more worthy of respect than my mountains."
I am not against the coal industry. Coal was mined for decades
without completely devastating the entire region. My family is a
part of that coal-mining legacy.
But mountaintop removal is wrong. The worst part of all is that
mountaintop removal actually takes jobs away from the region, since
it takes many more men to deep mine a mountain than it does to strip
it and remove it.
In mountaintop removal, machines do most of the work. A document
prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states:
"Although coal production remains high ... new technology has
reduced the need for coal miners."
If mountaintop removal is banned, there might actually be more
mining jobs for the hard-working people of Kentucky. Besides that,
the proper respect might be returned to the spirit of the land and
I love Kentucky. I love the mountains. But even more
than that, I love the people who live in this place with me. Their
stories haunt me.
Silas House of Lily is an author
and a writing professor at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond
and Spalding University in Louisville. Reach him by e-mail at