Monday, April 19, 2010

Coal, Interrupted

It's been two weeks since the latest coal mining disaster in West Virginia, and this one has received considerable media attention. This being an explosion inside a mine in the town of Montcoal, about 30 miles southwest of Charleston (the link just above has a detailed map and informative news video) where almost 30 miners were killed, the most deaths from a mining catastrophe since the early 70's.
It just so happens that I was only a few miles up the Coal River from Montcoal a week before the incident. (And not often do I find myself in West Virginia) It was an eye-opening, eye-burning experience, beautiful yet disturbing...
Only in the last year had I become aware of the horror known as Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining. For someone who has grown up with loving memories of Appalachian mountain holidays, beginning in childhood, this practice seems purely shocking and unnecessary (like the electric chair for mountains!) but apparently destroying these wonders of nature has a productive purpose. It's a tried and "true" tradition, going back to 1742 (see photo above) but much cheaper and with less human work involved (meaning, less jobs too of course!)
And it's happening all across southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where the often-impoverished population will be powerless to stop it. And there is a movement toward the cleaner, more permanent alternative of wind energy, but so far the big coal companies (particularly Massey Energy) are making change difficult.

The issues surrounding coal mining and its ties to the history of the middle Appalachians are so complex, I can not discuss them all here and do them justice. Plus, I'm still learning about it, and I live three states away. But I have seen enough to realize how dangerous and destructive the coal industry currently is, and that not enough people are aware of these appalling practices! Once you have been here in person and see it – or even feel it happening all around you – your eyes will burn in mourning too.

There are three ways environmental and human disasters can occur from industry coal mining:

  1. Traditional underground mining. Montcoal and Sylvester. Massey Energy operates several large-scale mines around West Virginia, including the one at Montcoal and another several miles downriver at Sylvester. I passed Massey's Elk Run complex next to Sylvester, where I was greeted with beautiful vallery scenery:

    In 2003, the coal dust was so bad in this town that residents were constantly sick, and so a lawsuit was filed, ordering Massey to cover the (open) cleaning facility with a cloth dome cover.

    Isn't it wonderful going to school next to this? Seeing the giant mine complex across from mobile homes and eroding highway is sickening, especially with the disaster down the road in a similar situation.

    Here is a 2006 letter from Elk Run Coal regarding changes at the facility:

  2. Mountaintop Removal Mining. Also dominated by Massey in West Virginia and by other companies in Kentucky, this method was started to reduce labor costs and extract the coal more quickly. Of course, MRM is permanent, and destroys animal habitats, all plant life, and has pushed many people from their homes! One well-known case of the latter is of Larry Gibson of Kayford Mountain (just east of Sylvester and Whiteville), who refuses to give his mountainside land to the coal companies. Kayford, which has been mostly desecrated by MRM, has become a center for environmental activism and collegiate studies.

    Larry's website, and more info about Kayford Mountain:
    An introductory video about MRM (very graphic):
    More about MRM:

  3. Slurry Dams, built high above mining facilities on mountainsides so people below cannot see them. However, they are dangerous, and could overflow at any time! I saw plenty of these too, especially along US-119 from Charleston through Pikeville, Kentucky.
    Notable Slurry/Coal Sludge Dam disasters include:
    -Buffalo Creek Flood in Logan County, WV in 1972 – LOTS of people killed and homes destroyed
    -Wolf Creek in Martin County, Kentucky in October 2008
    -the TVA Impoundment near Kingston, Tennessee, in December 2008

    Read more about Buffalo Creek, Wolf Creek and other slurry disasters here:

Read a recent blog post from Grist about Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship:


(Walhonde Village on Kayford Mountain with a strip mine visible in the background. The area in the middle used to be a much higher mountain)

But, the middle Appalachians are a place of much natural beauty, and the possibility of keeping it beautiful is still strong. Hope for wind farms like one proposed near Montcoal!!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

go forth into the waterfall

PISGAH and DUPONT forests, on APRIL afternoons

Jessica Powell and Brian Goforth want to bathe in a waterfall as a wedding ritual. Her dress will not just sit in the closet for years after their wedding, wearable but unworn; she will let the water and the rocks rip the dress into a mess of memories. And they will keep the torn dress and the moment. They're just shopping for waterfalls, now.

As I have mentioned, there is a long cluster of waterfalls around the tri-state meeting point of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, along a long escarpment where the Blue Ridge mountains meets the Piedmont foothills.
Really, there are so many to see, you could spend a four day trip here just visiting waterfalls starting around Tallulah Gorge in Georgia (see "Tallulah" two chapters below) moving up through Brevard, NC. Actually Transylvania County/Brevard calls itself "land of waterfalls."

In the quick warmth of one April Asheville afternoon, I sought a waterfall or more to cool off by, and I was about an hour from the "land of waterfalls." So I arrived near Brevard, at the literal gateway to the Pisgah National Forest (Pisgah ranger district) and stopped at the first waterfall I came to, Looking Glass Falls.
Looking Glass, popular because of its height and majesty yet close roadside access, is where I met Jessica and Brian (pictured at LGF). Their wedding is in July in a town nearby, so they are scouting for the perfect waterfall location,
starting here.
People are allowed to play in the pool below this falls, but the rocks just beneath the flume where Jessica's dress will tear are slippery and dangerous. So, they visit their next option, Moore's Cove Falls just a mile up highway 276, where I am also going.
Moore's Cove Falls (both pictures at the top) is about a half-mile hike from the
road: smaller, much more private, and you can go behind the waterfall and sit and stay dry! There are several other falls where you can do this, like "Dry Falls" about an hour further west, but this one is close and the afternoon sunlight glowed beautifully through the spill of water off the overhang. It was otherworldly, and so relaxingly cool...
Jessica and Brian seemed to like this place better for their post-wedding dress tearing, and I agree. As they left, I took off my shoes and hopped into the falling flume, standing sprite-like in the sunlight, hair getting wet, basking in the cool and warm of the moment.

After leaving the Pisgah forest district I drove to the also-recommended Dupont (NC) State Forest, a multi-use area of land near the NC/SC border. It's a watershed (Little River), plant and animal wildlife preserve previously owned by the Dupont company, and has suffered from erosion from Tropical Storm Ivan in 2004. There are also several major waterfalls on the premises, including four on the Little River. Before sunset, I was able to visit High Falls...

Triple Falls...

....and Hooker Falls, featured in the film "The Last of the Mohicans."

By now, the sun was setting and the air was already getting cool again.
Looking westward to Brevard and the valley, I pranced away. Hope and safety for a happy couple standing faces to the mist...

For more about Dupont SF:

For Pisgah NF and those falls:

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dark Days at Black Rock (Spring in highplaces part 2)

Mountain City, GA...the highest (elevation) park in GA.
It was cloudy, late, and rainy. You could barely see the mountain through the fog. Not really exploring weather!
But the Spring House amid the rhododendron - you can see the rhododendron begin in thick washes as you go up the mountain - here was a spot of peace that you could drink, and Trahlyta would have liked it here even though it isn't big enough for bathing...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tallulah: "You don't want to lose her" (early Spring in high places, part 1)


There are many natural and geologic features that come together in the corner where Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina meet. It is the southeastern edge escarpment of the Appalachian range, so there are lots of waterfalls and breaks as you move from southwest to northeast, far too many to visit on a single trip! There are some really beautiful ones in each state. The falls on the Tallulah River are one set of the most famous in Georgia, partly because of a major road (and once, railroad) going north-south through her, partly because it is a really major drop in such a short distance (almost 1000 feet!) and travelers can see this from the old road.

Like many others I had passed by many times, but, as in the song of Trahlyta, on this cloudy, rainy day I had to stop and leave a stone. The park itself was almost empty but the rain stopped as soon as I walked in. So on down into the gorge I went, more than three hundred steps down past L'eau D'or Falls and Tempesta Falls on the way to Hurricane Falls.
Somewhere along the way the north and south rim trails cross the river gorge by a bridge. You can look down and see Hurricane Falls, far below. Like at the falls of Cloudland Canyon at Rising Fawn, to face the crashing water alone is wildly spiritual.
Unlike the rounded bowl of rock below Cloudland's falls, and many of the falls in the Tennessee Valley, the rocks down here are of more sharp diagonal lines, pushing downward as a fault, and you may wish to listen for the the stories of Gorge's creation. Tallulah's childhood was believably difficult, and she had more breakups and breakdowns than her big sister Chattooga - who herself had a change of destination partway through her early life possibly due to the same event...

Trails on the rim are made from recycled rubber...

For more on Tallulah Gorge:
(botanical and geological history especially)

Next: The transition to Spring is slower in high places - Part 2, Dark Days at Black Rock Mtn