Waste Electricity, Destroy a Mountain

Erik Reece explains that the liverwort, with no obvious use to humanity, combines with other modest flora throughout the Appalachian mountains to help hold the rich soil in place, purify water downstream and provide habitat for small animals such as salamanders. Appalachia boasts over 70 species of trees and 250 species of birds in the most diverse ecosystem of North America.

Yet tons of organic covering and acres of timber are routinely displaced and wasted, plus two-thirds of all songbirds across eastern Kentucky's Cumberland Plateau are in decline. The culprit according to Reece: mountaintop removal (MTR).

Few people outside the coalfields may know about MTR. But, since half of American electricity comes from coal and 70 percent of coal comes from stripping with increasing amounts from MTR, a consumer wasting electricity in Phoenix or Detroit may contribute to destroying a mountain in Appalachia.

Reece's article, “Death of a Mountain,” in Harper's Magazine (April 2005), won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism presented by Columbia University. According to the press release, the article “was recognized for its strong narrative, in which the author chronicled over the course of a year the gradual disappearance of the mountain and the species that inhabited it as a result of stip mining.”

MTR, known as strip mining on steroids, represents a method of mining that decapitates mountains, endangers communities and damages local homes with little legal remedy. Whereas deep mining sends miners underground, MTR uses giant earth movers to strip away foliage and dirt on top of the coal seam — sometimes lowering the mountain by 500 feet to expose the coal. The large equipment pushes the overburden off the mountain into the valleys below burying the headwaters of streams that form the backbone of the area ecosystem. Front-end loaders then scoop the exposed coal into trucks, economically producing coal at the cheapest cost.

But, besides the cost to the environment, communities and local residents pay a mounting price in health and safety. An Eastern Kentucky University study found that Letcher County, Kentucky, children suffer extraordinarily high rates of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and shortness of breath — symptoms associated with blue baby syndrome — tracing the causes to nearby streams containing sedimentation and dissolved minerals drained from area mine sites. Most tragically, 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson of Inman, Virginia, was killed in bed when a bulldozer operating without a permit above his house dislodged a 1,000-pound boulder from an MTR site that rolled 200 feet down the mountain crashing through the house wall to crush him.

The mining industry regrets the collateral damage its practices cause, but it points to the social benefits of level land for development, high wages for employees and cheap electricity for consumers. Critics counter that most of the 320,000 acres leveled by MTR lies too remote and inaccessible for development, that MTR has dramatically reduced employment in the coal industry and that so-called cheap electricity frequently ignores social and environmental costs.

For people of faith, “jobs versus the environment,” or “economic growth versus the environment,” pose a false dichotomy. Since God owns creation (Ps 24:1), humanity is charged with good stewardship and challenged to develop holistic ways of building community. Developing a national energy plan that rejects abusive mining practices and is based on renewable sources would expand employment while saving the earth. The short-term, quick-fix offered by MTR increases corporate profits, but it ignores the future choices for the children of Appalachia, not to mention the liverworts and salamanders that live with us in God's intricate web of life.

Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who lives, writes and organizes in Appalachia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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