This news story originally provided by The Columbus Dispatch
October 9, 2005
Knocking Down Mountaintops
Scalped for Coal
Mining companies are shearing the peaks off Appalachian mountains, often with severe effects on the environment
By Rita Price
DOROTHY, W.Va. -- The path up Kayford Mountain stretches skyward, then pauses to offer a slice of flat earth.
Larry Gibson has accepted the geologic gesture many times in his 59 years, grateful for both the perch and the view.
He never thought to take a picture.
"Why would I?" Gibson asks. "Mountains are forever."
By the time he learned otherwise, it was too late for pretty portraits.
Coal companies don't need much time to decapitate 400-million-year-old mountains.
Crews blast away the summits, leaving gaping, lethal wounds.
Trucks and bulldozers shove aside the remains, filling verdant valleys with smothering rubble.
"They don't even want the timber," Gibson says, shaking his head and pointing to a smoldering pile of clear-cut hardwoods. "It's a devil's hole."
Under this devastatingly efficient method of coal mining, trees are in the way.
Crews raze and scrape the forest clean, then plant explosives in the naked ground.
The blast, up to 100 times more powerful than the Oklahoma City bomb, lays bare the swirling coal seams that nature put up high, beyond easy human reach.
Industry officials acknowledge that mountaintop-removal mining looks ugly, stirs emotion and generates lawsuits.
They also say it is a necessary, well-regulated response to geography, vocation and the nation's hearty appetite for the cheap, shiny black rock that generates more than half the U.S. supply of electricity.
"Look, I'm not suggesting that we're improving what the Lord put on this Earth," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "But we're trying to manage it."
Opponents, including Gibson, say mountaintop-removal mining is pure ecocide. They see it as the ultimate expression of greed and indifference from an industry that loots West Virginia, exploiting both its natural resources and poverty.
Years of protests and court battles have done little to curb mountaintop mining, which has been tolerated -- or embraced -- by Democratic and Republican administrations.
Provisions of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the Clean Water Act could have shut it down, but politics and industry lobbying have left regulations more manipulated than enforced, opponents say.
In the meantime, hundreds of miles of streams -- the links between forests and rivers -- have been polluted and buried.
"The laws used to mandate that these things were illegal, but the laws keep getting changed," said Cindy Rank, of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "The law was meant to set limits. The mining industry isn't supposed to change the laws to go along with their technology."
Raney said mining "simply has emerged," and he applauds efforts by the Bush administration to recognize industry needs.
A federal judge had ruled, for example, that filling valleys with mining debris violated the Clean Water Act. Federal officials made some wording changes in 2002. Now, the debris that was considered mine "waste," and cannot be dumped into valley streambeds, is defined as acceptable "fill."
Another proposed change would scrap a 2-decade-old law against mining within 100 feet of a stream.
And mountaintop-mining opponents continue to battle the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for parts of the operations, over what critics say is a rubber-stamp process with insufficient environmental review.
"It's just 'Play it again, Sam,' kind of stuff," Raney said of the ongoing court action. "I really don't think the complaints are legitimate."
Gibson, barely more than 5 feet tall, has stood against mountaintop operations for nearly 18 years, since he left Ohio and moved back to find his homestead under assault.
He challenges coal companies. He tries to shame politicians. He urges consumers to pressure power companies such as American Electric Power, based in Columbus, to stop buying mountaintop-mined coal.
"Someone from Ecuador sent me a warrior necklace," Gibson says, smiling.
Then he begins to cry. His hard work isn't paying off. The mountain his family settled 200 years ago is dying.
"Am I doing something wrong?" he wonders. "How come no one listens?"
* * *
Scientists say the Appalachians are among the most biologically diverse, and probably the oldest, mountains in the world.
They also serve as a lush, blood-stained backdrop to generations of struggle over money, labor and land in America's energy zone.
"People just don't understand the connection between the light switch and what goes on in the coal fields," Rank said.
"Flip it, and you're either draining somebody's pond in Pennsylvania or blowing up mountains in West Virginia."
Roughly 10 percent of the coal AEP buys each year comes from mountaintop mines, spokesman Pat Hemlepp said. Because the utility is the nation's largest consumer of coal, that percentage -- anywhere from 7.5 million to 11.5 million tons a year -- represents up to a fourth of the production last year from West Virginia mountaintop operations.
Elisa Young, of Meigs County in southeastern Ohio, is calling on the company to use its clout to curb the mines. She is circulating a petition that asks AEP to stop buying from mountaintop operations, and to increase investment in alternative and so-called green energy options.
The petition says mountaintop operations destroy groundwater systems, trigger dangerous flooding and leave behind poorly reclaimed sites where topsoil and native trees might not return for 1,000 years.
Hemlepp said the utility's purchasing practices are not likely to change.
"We have an obligation to our ratepayers," he said. "We've been told to provide energy at the lowest cost possible. To do that, we buy coal. We will continue to buy coal that is mined by legally permitted means."
AEP does not directly give consumers the option of buying power generated by renewable sources such as sunlight and wind, Hemlepp said, although the company includes some renewables in its overall mix.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, an electricity wholesaler, offers its Green Power Switch program as a way to give providers and consumers options, spokesman John Moulton said.
Consumers can buy green power in 150-kilowatt-hour blocks for $4 extra per month. A block is about 12 percent of a typical household's use.
So far, takers are few: about 8,200 residential customers among the 2.7 million eligible, Moulton said. But in areas where the local electricity providers actively market the program, participation tops 2.5 percent.
Hemlepp said concern over the effects of mining does not necessarily mean consumers are willing to pay a premium.
"What the public says on a survey is typically very different from what the public does with its pocketbook," he said.
The costs to coal-field communities and possible long-term damage to the environment from mountaintop mining are not for AEP to address, Hemlepp said.
"We are not a public-policy body," he said. "There must be people in the public-policy arena who have deemed this appropriate, or it wouldn't be going on."
Former West Virginia legislator Joan Linville now works to stop mountaintop mining. She said that most residents know better than to look for a link between public policy and the public good, at least when it comes to "King Coal."
"When they closed the union mines down here, there was a bunch of men about to retire. My husband was one of them," said the 66-year-old widow. "He got gypped out of a pension and had no health insurance."
The house they shared shakes from dynamite blasts and floods when heavy rains run off the unnatural topography, she said.
Linville trusts God for a lot of things, but when a storm lasts more than an hour, she leaves the area.
Her husband's old mining hall, UMWA 8377 in Boone County, sits empty and overgrown with weeds. Murky puddles streaked with mine waste and sludge dot the ground.
"Coal has always done exactly what it wants," she said. "Coal is mean."
* * *
Opponents say fast-paced mountaintop mining already has destroyed more than 1,200 miles of headwater streams and 800 square miles of central Appalachian mountains. Stretched out, the Highlands Conservancy says, the flattened peaks would form a swath one-quarter mile wide from New York to San Francisco.
Put it all on one map, and Larry Gibson would be the little speck in a ballcap, surrounded.
Giant mining equipment has bitten into Kayford on all four sides.
Mountaintop operations use draglines up to 20 stories tall to peel away the rock and earth. With bases as big as gymnasiums, 46 Honda Accords could fit in their buckets.
The scale of such operations might seem better-suited to wide-open coal country, such as that in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Industry brought it to the steep, crowded confines of central Appalachia to get at thin, low-sulfur seams that lie like frosting layers inside mountaintops.
"When Larry came home to all this," said his good friend Maria Gunnoe, "he was just devastated."
Gibson, a one-time miner, had been gone 29 years. He left when the underground mines started closing and went to work in northeastern Ohio's then-thriving auto industry.
Many members of his clan had sold out, he said. Of 500 acres, just 50 remain, and Gibson has secured it in a public trust.
He does not own mineral rights to the property. Like so many other Appalachian families, Gibson said, his unwittingly signed away the riches a hundred years ago "for one dollar in hand and some considerations" that never materialized.
He figures he doesn't owe the barons any favors.
To make a point, Gibson stays. He lives in a small, solar-powered house and tends the family cemetery, which overlooks a cavernous mine.
"I've been told I'm sitting on coal reserves worth more than $400 million," he said.
His stance is not endearing to everyone.
"They say I'm a terrorist," Gibson said.
Tuned to their CB radio channels, he can hear mine workers and company officials talk about him. Job-hungry men sometimes are told that, if not for Larry Gibson, there would be work around Kayford for 20 years.
"I don't blame them," he said. "They need the jobs. They deserve better; they just don't know any better. One of the hardest things to do is reach people who don't know they're oppressed."
Gibson keeps both a pistol and a wary, loyal dog by his side. He said he has recorded 118 acts of violence and vandalism against him or his property.
"They shot my dog, burned my cabin, set my pickup in the creek. I never know when the trouble's coming for me."
At last count, 25 anti-mountaintop bumper stickers adorned his white truck, including one with the lament: Almost level -- West Virginia.
The mine companies, Gunnoe says, have another name for the stickers.
"They call 'em teardrops."
* * *
Mountaintop mining might be to central Appalachia what traffic-generating development is to a city, said Carol Raulston, of the National Mining Association.
"Activities that disrupt what people see around them become hot-button issues," she said.
Both she and Raney said that West Virginia, and the nation, can ill afford to leave behind the mountaintop bounty.
"For the coal seams that are near the surface, this is the only way to support it," Raulston said. "Either you leave it and don't mine it, or this is the way that you do it."
Roughly 15,000 jobs in West Virginia depend on mountaintop mining, she said, and the state needs every one.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state's poverty rate is 18 percent. Its median household income of $32,589 ranks last in the nation.
"If it weren't for coal, there wouldn't be nothing here," said John Baisden, a 27-year-old Army veteran. He returned from Afghanistan recently and now works on a mountaintop operation.
In the military, he said, he got used to protesters. Baisden tunes out mountaintop-mining opponents, too.
"People will think what they want."
But as the industry becomes ever-more efficient, it needs fewer miners. In 1970, when Bullpush Mountain began crumbling to the state's first mountaintop-removal project, it took 45,261 workers to mine 143.1 million tons of coal.
By 1997, a peak production year, just 18,165 miners were needed for 181.9 million tons.
Raulston said mountaintop methods are the most efficient of all, and now account for about a third of West Virginia's annual coal production.
"It still amounts to less than 1 percent of the land," Raney said, adding that parts of his state could use more level ground. "When you get into the steep terrain of southern West Virginia, flat land is a rare commodity."
For many coal-field residents, the deepest hurt has come not from the mining but from broken promises left in its wake.
"There were some problems with post-mining uses," said Dennis Boyles, of the Office of Surface Mining.
Companies that vowed to reclaim flattened peaks with badly needed development instead left behind thousands of acres of flat, scrubby meadow, the soil too compacted, rocky and dry to support native flora.
"I'm not kicking because they take the coal," said Joan Evans, who lives near a mountaintop operation in Mingo County, outside Matewan. "I'm kicking because of how they take it and give nothing back."
State and federal officials say, however, that past missteps and broken promises have led to improved regulation and reclamation enforcement.
"People are becoming more progressive," said Jessica Greathouse, of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. "For 20 years, it can't just be a barren landscape."
* * *
The intense activism and protests that surged in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee this summer should serve as a warning to both King Coal and its sympathetic politicians, said Gibson's friend Maria Gunnoe.
"They need to understand. They are not dealing with yesterday's hillbillies."
Tall, dark-haired and born to a family of Cherokee miners, the 36-year-old mother of two recently left her waitress job to become a full-time organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
"My brothers work in the deep mines," she said. "They'd probably starve before they scalped mountains."
Gunnoe found her voice against mountaintop mining on June 16, 2003. After 45 minutes of hard rain that day, a brown wall of rocks, mud, trees and water rushed down the hill behind her house, where she says a mountaintop mining project has drastically changed the topography.
Her young daughter was so frightened that Gunnoe had to cover her eyes. "I dropped to my knees for a moment, praying with everything I had," she said. "Then I put a rain slicker over her head and threw her over my shoulder."
They barely escaped with their lives.
"Something you have at the end of every valley fill is a flooded valley," she said.
A year later, Gunnoe drove her red pickup to New York City and walked into the Massey Energy shareholders meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. She started handing out cards with a picture of a coal-slurry impoundment. The wastewater ponds, full of millions of gallons of sludge, loom above coal-field communities.
"I got about 20 passed out before the big, burly guy came."
Then Gunnoe spotted Massey Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship at the buffet table, she said. Before he could have her escorted out, she told him, "I figure it this way: You can come to where I live and pass out anything you want."
In the spring, she said, anti-mountaintop forces will march on Washington.
Her new employer, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, also is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the Army Corps, challenging a permit granted to a subsidiary of Massey to mine around historic Blair Mountain.
In 1921, thousands of miners defending their right to unionize rose against federal troops during a 10-day fight that came to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Determined to protect a towering symbol of Appalachian culture and heritage, mountaintop-mining opponents also want Blair placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
West Virginia's senior senator, Democrat Robert C. Byrd, would not weigh in on any of the legal battles. He does not take a general position on mountaintop-removal mining, his spokesman said.
"Sen. Byrd has been supportive of trying to create a regulatory atmosphere where there's some certainty for both the residents and the industry," Tom Gavin said. He declined to be specific.
One day, Larry Gibson said, he and Maria Gunnoe won't be able to walk up Kayford. He won't be able to take visitors to the ledge and show them the strange, brown mesas.
He won't have a place to sit and close his eyes, trying to imagine what the mountain used to look like.
"Then I'll get a helicopter to come and drop me on top of what's left," Gibson said. "Maybe that's a noise people will hear."
Illustration: Photo, Graphic , MAP appeared in newspaper, not in the archive.