Back in the 1960s, coal companies discovered they could get at coal seams more cheaply by blasting off the tops of mountains. This removes the land, or “over-burden” in coal company jargon.
It also removes all the trees and wildlife, pollutes the air and valleys and leaves toxins in its wake.
As the price of oil rose, more mountaintops were removed, sending a toxic sludge sliding down into the valleys to cl0g streams and kill wildlife.
People in the valleys began to see more birth defects among their children. In fact, a 2011 study showed that babies born to mothers who live in areas with mountain top removal mining have a 26 percent higher rate of birth defects than the national average. The study also found the risk is 42 percent higher over the course of the study from 1000 to 2003, and 181 percent higher during more recent years, specifically for a heart or lung defect, which suggests that the effects of living near mountaintop removal sites may be cumulative.
Another 2011 study found the odds for reporting cancer were twice as high in the mountaintop mining environment as in non-mining areas in ways not explained by age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure, or family cancer history.
People have complained, people have sued, people have taken it to Congress, but nothing has changed. Big coal is allowed to devastate the Appalachian Mountains because it has the money to buy Congress and regulatory agencies. No matter what the residents of eastern Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia do, the mountains keep being blown up by coal companies.
Residents’ homes are shaken and weakened, valleys flood and dust fills the air, and the coal companies keep blasting.
Meanwhile, coal companies say they can “reclaim” the land. In fact, the law requires they do so. Perhaps they can bring in topsoil and replant trees, but the trees don’t grow well in the reclaimed soil, so non-native plants are sown to hold the soil in place and the original bio-system is gone forever. The streams are gone, animals have disappeared and people are sick and dying.
Coal companies also talk about “clean coal.” There is no such thing. It is dirty. It is messy. It pollutes.
But coal companies and oil companies can’t own the sun or the wind, so the politicians they do own refuse to invest in clean energy. Instead, they’re allowed to destroy the planet, mountaintop by mountaintop, waterway by waterway.
An entire mountain culture is being destroyed by the rape of the mountains for cheap energy, and no one seems to be able to stop it, although people are still trying.
This weekend, a group of West Virginia women will go to the state capitol in Charleston to protest the practice of mountaintop removal.
Army veteran and registered nurse Marilyn Mullens is leading the march. She and a group of coalfield mothers, daughters and activists will shave their heads to “call out the bald face complicity of Big Coal-bankrolled state politicians and the denial of the devastating health and human rights violations in coal mining communities,” AlterNet’s Jeff Biggers reports.
Like Big Oil, the arrogance of the coal companies and the politicians and regulators they have bought is hard to stomach. Their short-sighted pursuit of profits is destroying ecosystems that can’t be replaced or recreated. It won’t stop unless we the people take back our government from corporate control.
Leslie Boyd, a former newspaper reporter, is president of the health care advocacy nonprofit, WNC Health Advocates, founded in memory of her son, who died in 2008 because he couldn't access health care. E-mail her at leslie at lettersfromtheleft dot com or follow her on Twitter @leftyletters1, visit Letters from the Left on Facebook. For more information about WNC Health Advocates or to read Boyd's health care blog, visit wncha.org.