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:
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: http://www.ilovemountains.org/memorial/c295/37
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.
- 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: http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Buffalo_Creek_Flood
I SAW PAINTED FACES IN THE ROCKS AND CUT EARTH. FACES OF THOSE WHO HAVE PASSED. UNDER MOONLIGHT I SAW AN OLD MINER TRAPPED INSIDE A ROCK. THEIR EXPRESSIONS WERE OF PAIN. HIS FACE FRAMED THE “TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE” : IF YOU BRING THE COAL, THE SLURRY WILL BE MINE.
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!!