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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 saplings.

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 citizens.

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 of us.

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 pastures there.

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 them, too.

On hearing these people tell their stories, the authors were all emotionally devastated.

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 such things.

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 its people.

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 silas.house@eku.edu.

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