DOROTHY, W. Va. – Larry Gibson lives on an island in the sky.
It didn’t start that way: His land was once a low hill in a rugged hardwood forest – cherry, oak, hickory – skipping from ridge to ridge across one of the poorest, most rural areas of the Lower 48.
Then came the mining companies with their dynamite and trucks. They clear-cut the forest, blew the tops off the ridges and scraped the rocks into the hollows, pushing hundreds of feet of mountains into the valleys below.
They came for the coal – energy that provides half of the nation’s electricity and has been touted as a major plank in the United State’s bid for energy independence. They left, in Gibson’s view, a swale of extirpation and death.
This is mountaintop removal mining, the underbelly of the promise of clean, home-grown energy touted by industry and politicians.
No place in the United States has seen the damage and the benefits of mountaintop removal like Appalachia, where one third of the nation’s coal is mined. Today about 30 percent of all the coal coming out of the central and southern Appalachians comes via such surface mining.
“There is no such thing as clean coal,” Gibson said, talking to a group of journalists under the canopy of his forested knob, where the sylvan sounds of birds and wind carried an undertone of heavy machinery and tumbling rocks.
“I want you folks to write what you see,” he said. “And if you write truthfully, you will end one of the most barbaric practices on the planet.”
Coal’s benefits are considerable: cheap, plentiful energy that simultaneously injects cash into the poorest regions of the country. Coal holds such power that no U.S. administration – Republican or Democrat – has ever tried to stop mountaintop removal.
The full environmental cost is never tallied. No other energy source emits as much carbon dioxide when burned. Coal is so cheap – and so plentiful – that experts generally agree global warming will never be contained until industrialized nations find a way to cap those emissions. And before coal burns, it has to be ripped from the ground.
Gibson’s family has owned this wooded hilltop for 230 years: 50 acres at the end of a rough road, populated with maples, walnuts and a few small houses with tar-paper roofs and kids’ swings out in front.
It’s a peaceful place, where autumn colors a drizzly autumn morning with red and gold and green. “My mother gave me birth,” Gibson often says. “The mountains give me life.”
His grandfather discovered in the late 1940s that 426 acres – acreage now being mined – had been stolen away in 1906, after someone filed what Gibson called a fraudulent title showing three “X”s as the signatures of his illiterate forebears.
In 1986 the Princess Beverly Coal Co. dynamited the top off the first ridge of what Gibson said was once his family’s forest.
Seven years later Massey Coal offered $140,000 for his hill. He turned them down.
“There should be some things in life money can’t buy,” he said.
Gibson’s water table dropped steadily until 2001, when it disappeared altogether. Today Kayford Mountain has become the iconic face of mountaintop removal mining; Gibson regularly brings groups up to see firsthand what’s at stake.
“It amazes me how they can talk about clean coal technology and have an extraction process like this,” said Chuck Nelson, a friend and miner who spent 30 years running coal carts underground before he spoke up against mountaintop removal’s destruction and lost his job.
He’s distressed by the vast scars mountaintop mining leaves in the rugged hills. “What they’re destroying can never be fixed. What they’re creating is worthless.”
What they’re creating lies up a rutted road, just beyond a rusty, padlocked pipe blocking the path.
Gibson calls it “Hell’s Gate.”
“Over here you have life,” he said before lifting a leg to trespass. “Over there you have death.”
He walks another 100 yards and stops. The point where Gibson stands tops out at 2,400 feet above sea level. The gash below stretches horizon to horizon: Bare rock and earth, where 150-ton dump trucks look like Matchbox toys and big dozers churn the landscape.
That chasm, he says, was once the area’s high point, 3,100 feet high. Now it’s some 800 feet below him.
“The costs to reclaim this is going out to the people of America,” Gibson said.
An hour’s drive to the east, Andrew Jordon stands on the porch of a hunting shack he had built for his employees and that looks out over a scene of similar desolation.
Except instead of Hell he sees heaven.
Jordon runs a small mining company that is chewing away at 400 acres of the same coal-rich terrain Gibson is trying to keep.
Jordon is the ninth generation of his family to live in that valley. The land he’s leasing is owned by the family of a friend and former high school football teammate. His general manager, Rocky Hackworth, is another high school classmate.
“I hunt in these hollows,” Jordon said. “To me, it’s very important to do it right. Where we’re standing today is an area we took down, took the coal out, and put it back to about where it was.”
Jordon has been mining for 20 years, has 6,000 acres under lease and has mined and reclaimed 2,200.
For every ton of coal he ships out of his mine, he has to move 28 tons of overburden, or rock. He figures he’s pulled 1.5 million tons of coal out so far and has another 6 million tons to go.
Every operation he’s started has run into some sort of inherited environmental contamination: a river running at pH 2 – fatal to aquatic critters – that Jordon restored to a more natural pH 6. Or a previously botched restoration that his crew reshaped and reforested with black cherry, sugar maple, oak and white ash.
Such work tends to get dropped from press coverage of mountaintop removal, advocates note. Confronting the same group of journalists that had crossed Hell’s Gate with Gibson, Coal Association President Bill Raney had to vent a bit of steam: “You say that mining’s not protecting the resources,” he said. “It drives me nuts when y’all use that same paragraph. It’s absolutely meaningless in terms of what we do out here.”
Men like Jordon and Hackworth move the earth, mine the coal, reshape the hills and reforest them. Or they leave a patch of level ground for a school, a ballpark, a Wal-Mart – no small asset for a state with preciously few flat spots.
The next ridge over from Jordon’s operation is Kanawha State Forest.
“I’ve got a church full of people who use that forest,” Jordon said. “When we got control, I promised those people I’d clean this place up.
He’s making good on that promise, too: From the front porch of that hunting shack, looking out over the mining and the earth-movers, an approaching autumn rain engulfs two forested knobs – artificial to be sure, and reclaimed from the mine, but growing anew nonetheless.
Rare well-paying jobs
Jordon’s story illustrates another fact of life in coal country every bit as stark as the denuded landscape around Gibson’s glade: Poverty.
Median income in the United States was almost $42,000 in 2000, the most recent data the U.S. Census has for nationwide earnings. In the 100 poorest counties - of which 38 lie in Appalachian coal country - the median was half that.
A typical household in Owsley County, in Kentucky’s eastern hills, brought home $16,271 in 2000; in McDowell County in West Virginia’s southern end, median earnings sat at $16,931.
The median income for a miner in 2000? $44,400, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“In areas of the country where there are limited education and opportunities, men can live like kings and women can live like queens compared to their neighbors if they mine coal,” said LaJuana Wilcher, an attorney with English Lucas Priest & Owsley in Kentucky who was the state’s secretary of Environmental and Public Protection from 2003 to 2006.
Coal paid Kentucky $183 million in severance taxes in 2005 and $583 million in other state taxes - almost 10 percent of the state’s general fund for that year. That’s a lot of highways, hospitals, police officers and schoolrooms for poor states, Wilcher notes.
Big Coal also greases the political rails, contributing $2.6 million through mid-October to both sides in the presidential election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Pro-mining West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, crushed his opponents Tuesday.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Wilcher said. “You see Sen. (Robert) Byrd (D, W. Va.) and top Republicans all going together on this.”
That power gets used, cautioned Nelson, the veteran miner. He lost his job when Massey Coal, his employer, blew the top off his local ridge and left half an inch of dust coating the interior of his house. He spoke up and has been blacklisted ever since.
“You don’t work for Massey and say anything against the industry,” Nelson said. He can’t stay silent, but he understands those who do.
“People get in debt, they got mouths to feed. They’re afraid to take that step. They’re afraid to be left out in the cold, ‘cause there’s nothing here.”
Coal provides direct jobs for 22,000 miners in West Virginia and another 50,000 contractors, according to the Coal Association. It allows men like Jordon and Hackworth to stay in the hills where they grew up. And it feeds the nation’s appetite for cheap power.
Miners pulled 377 million tons of coal out of Appalachia in 2007, about a third of the nation’s total production. Carbon content varies in coal, but the nation’s appetite for the cinder adds 1.8 trillion tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually, according to a 2000 U.S. Energy Information Agency report.
And it’s increasing: Industry estimates that 1 billion more tons of coal will be burned worldwide come 2013.
Efforts to reverse that trend quickly run into an immutable wall: Price.
The majority of the country, after all, was against drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last year, Wilcher noted. “And guess what: Gas gets to $4 a gallon, and people wanted to drill offshore for oil and to drill in ANWR.”
Raney summed the attitude of many in coal country: “The Lord put the coal in the ground, and everyone up in Boston and elsewhere enjoys using it.”
“Stewardship is key,” he said. But “should we limit it? Absolutely not.”
Replanting the forest
The growth of mountaintop removal mining can be traced back – as can many an environmental conflict – to efforts to solve another environmental conundrum.
In this case, the need to stem acid rain drove industry out of high-sulfur deposits in northern Appalachia and the Midwest and to the low-sulfur coal of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of those Appalachian seams are too shallow to mine conventionally.
The result is that while coal tonnage has decreased in Virginia since 1990, it has stayed steady in central and southern Appalachia as industry compensates with mountaintop removal, said Carl Zipper, director of the Powell River Project, a research program of Virginia Tech aimed at enhancing communities and restoration efforts in the state’s coalfields.
There’s an incalculable benefit to this shift, noted Wilcher, the lawyer and former regulator: Mountaintop removal mining is safer and requires fewer hands. Coalfield mining deaths have dropped precipitously as a result.
Throughout the ‘70s an average of 35 miners died annually. By the 1980s the annual death rate had dropped to the mid-20s. Today it’s in the single digits; not a single miner died in 2006, a first.
Reclamation practices are changing, too.
In the past, standard practice was to blow the top off the mountain, shovel the overburden into the valley, mine the coal, spray the area with foreign grass seed and hope for the best.
That left the acidic topsoil crucial for forest growth buried under compacted alkaline overburden. Streams became channels. The invasive grass out-competed other plants and stymied any sort of natural succession. Trees, if they were planted, were black locust, ash, sycamore, white pine – far less valuable than the hardwoods they replaced, said Virginia Tech forestry professor Jim Berger.
The Appalachian forest, cleared and logged three times over since Daniel Boone crossed the mountains, would need at least 300 years to grow back at mine sites with such reclamation efforts, Berger figures.
In 2002 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed its restoration guidelines, requiring operators to restore streams in a more natural manner and regulating the type of ripples and pools, sinuosity, slope and conductivity.
The Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining now encourages operators to restore the hardwood forest when they’re done, said Patrick Angel, an agency forester and soil scientist based in London, Ky. In every new surface mining permit issued recently in Virginia and in 80 percent of those in West Virginia, the mining company has committed to reclaim the land by planting a diverse hardwood forest, according to agency figures.
Not all rules move reclamation efforts forward, however.
In mid-October the Office of Surface Mining proposed repealing a 25-year-old prohibition on the dumping overburden in valley streams – a repeal the industry describes as crucial for the expansion of mountaintop removal mining.
Environmentalists are aghast. The rule will leave some 350 miles of Appalachian creeks permanently buried, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, and hydrologists question whether current technology can rebuild healthy streams in the mountains.
Moving on to the next mountain
It’s unclear what the future holds for Appalachia’s hardwood forest or the coal underneath. True, the debate on coal has shifted: Mining advocates acknowledge the industry needs more environmentally friendly technologies to mine and burn it, said Wesleyan College history professor Robert Rupp. “Ten years ago you wouldn’t have heard that.”
But while President-elect Barack Obama spoke against mountaintop removal during the campaign, key congressional leaders from both parties say they’re content with the law as is.
Back on Kayford Mountain, the walnut and hickory and maple trees have all shed their color. On Gibson’s front porch, cordwood is stacked neatly for the coming winter, right under a sign saying “Larry’s Place – Almost Heaven.”
Just over the ridge, miners have started on their next hill. They’re awaiting permission to blow the top off Coal River Mountain, where buried seams hold a 14-year supply of coal.
Gibson and his allies say the mountaintop would be an ideal place for wind turbines.
The mining companies say they have no problem with wind power. It’d be a perfect use for the area – after they get the coal out.
Douglas Fischer is editor of DailyClimate.org. Email him at email@example.com