In partnership with Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center, Xpress presents The Swannanoa Journal, short audio essays on regional environmental sustainability issues, written and recorded by WWC students. In this edition, Colin McCoy presents an opinion piece on the ecological and cultural perils of surface mining.
Mountaintop removal is cutting through the Appalachian bioregion faster than scissors on tissue paper. Companies like Peabody Coal are devastating communities whose culture has evolved from the resources and sights of the Appalachian Mountains for the production of excess energy. By invading Appalachian towns, these companies are harming more than the local landscape; they are depriving the Appalachian people of decades of history and culture.
The practice is affecting Kentucky and Virginia most harshly. In Kentucky, about 1,000 tons of explosives are used per day to topographically alter the land. Jeff Keith, professor at Warren Wilson College, is a native western Kentuckian. And though this area of the bluegrass state isn’t mountainous, it contains coalfields that have been active for over 100 years. Thus, Keith has witnessed the devastation. He says, “Mountaintop removal has already destroyed some Appalachian communities, and it is threatening many others. In general, it is polarizing people throughout the region and the nation.” Keith continues, ”I am in awe of how much energy and talent has been directed toward the engineering associated with coal mining, and I am sad to know of the many human and ecological sacrifices that the industry has claimed over the past one hundred and fifty years.”
Benham and Lynch are two neighboring Kentucky mining towns affected by surface mining. Keith says, “Folks around there have taken pride in their surroundings and their connections to one another by celebrating an industry that has provided their families with a way of getting by for generations.” Mayor of Lynch, Taylor Hall, has lobbied to stop surface mining from reaching Black Mountain, Kentucky’s tallest peak, stating that the practice could severely harm the water quality of the region. Unfortunately, Hall was recently voted out of office and replaced by Johnnie Adams. Keith says, “This may mean an end to resisting surface mining on Black Mountain.”
The situation is pickling because folks in these towns rely on the destructive industry for sufficient money flow. Keith says, “Few brave souls are writing petitions about water quality, and they are increasingly facing resistance and being associated with ‘outsiders’ and environmental extremists. The situation is a difficult one in Appalachian communities with few economic alternatives to the coal industry.” Alongside this problem, Big Coal is trampling on the efforts of many small Appalachian towns that have managed to establish tourism revenue. Keith says, ”They have opened a coal mining museum, preserved early twentieth century buildings that relate to that industry, and reopened a theater for miners.” Many tourists are attracted to these small quaint towns for their landscape rather than their mine-your-own-gold attractions. Without the draw of the mountains, it’s highly unlikely that the towns will continue to profit at the same rate.
Though the situation seems to have no solution, Keith retains a grain of optimism, saying “Despite all of these things, I find the people of Kentucky’s coalfields to be resilient and proud. I’m certain Kentucky will retain its distinctive cultural traditions, but I fear that the industry will continue to make people sick and destroy various landscapes in their effort to turn the land’s resources into profit.” The story has been ongoing for over one hundred years, and mountaintop removal is just one aspect of it. Keith says, “Ultimately, I believe healthy land makes healthy people and healthy communities.”