Mountaintop Removal and Kitty Genovese
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there are left the mountains. ---- Robinson Jeffers
The most common form of terrorism in the U.S.A. is that carried on by bulldozers and chainsaws. It is not enough to understand the natural world; the point is to defend and preserve it. Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul. ---- Edward Abbey
Last week, as I drove north on I-64 in West Virginia from Beckley toward Cabin Creek, I was stunned at how beautiful the Appalachian Mountains appeared. The day was cool, gray, and rainy. Maple and oak and tulip trees were in full color, glowing gold and rust against the dark green of pine and hemlock. Tattered scarves of translucent clouds lay draped over the mountains' shoulders giving the steep heights an alluring look of exotic, primeval mystery.
I was not in West Virginia, though, to gawk at the beauty strip of mountains still standing along the interstate to entice tourists. I had come to see Mountaintop Removal first hand. As I drove, I found myself remembering Kitty Genovese. In 1964, 28 year old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death and raped on a street in Queens. Her murder prompted a national outcry because, as she screamed for help, no one came to her rescue or even called the police. Why were Americans so passively uncaring for the plight of their neighbor? As a young idealistic person, I was nearly as ashamed as if I had failed to act myself. Of course, I lived in Cincinnati and was somewhat out of earshot. But I vowed that if ever I were witness to something like that, I would get involved.
What's happening in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia to our mountains is rape and murder. If only the mountains had voices to scream, the world would quake with the sound. The coal companies, like Nazi doctors preparing a patient for an experiment, shave the mountains first, clear cutting the oldest and most productive habitats in our hemisphere. Frequently they dump entire forests into the valleys and bury them under the blasted rubble of the former mountains. So hungry are they for the coal, they don't even have time to eat the lumber hors d'oeurve.
I was headed for Kayford Mountain, the home of Larry Gibson who has refused to sell out to the coal companies. The mountains for three hundred and sixty degrees around Kayford have been removed. Once Larry looked up at the surrounding peaks. Now he looks 1000 feet down. It's radical, mountain mastectomy for as far as the eye can see. Mountaintop Removal is the surgical mining technique that Massey Energy and Arch Coal and other companies are inflicting on the Appalachians. The tops of the mountains (euphemistically called "overburden") are blown off. Then the "overburden" becomes "valley fill," mega tons of rubble shoved over into the valleys, destroying lush habitat and burying over 1000 miles of streams. Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch says, "We're in a war zone. We're being bombed. They're using 3 ½ million pounds of explosives a day to destroy our mountains."
People often say that the decimated area looks like the moon. It's true that where rounded, tree covered mountains once soared is now ragged, gray plain. Two million acres blown to bits. An area the size of Delaware. But nowhere in the moon's Sea of Tranquility, not yet anyway, would you see a twenty story machine with an insatiable appetite for coal gnawing at the stripped ribs of a mountain side. Nor on the moon would you see a cavalcade of coal trucks, each hauling 120,000 pounds of coal, rumbling through switchbacks down the flanks of the remaining lower slopes and terrifying the local drivers. The moon is placid and beautiful except for some garbage and flags left by the Apollo astronauts. The moon doesn't have billion-gallon toxic, coal-slurry ponds precariously contained by earthen dams that can fail suddenly and bury whole towns under twenty feet of poisonous sludge. ( It's happened twice.) One is leaking right now above the Marsh Fork elementary school. The moon isn't causing incredible rates of asthma and cancer, isn't cracking the foundations and walls of poor people's houses, poisoning wells, filling their houses and lungs with coal dust, and forcing them to move. The moon doesn't have streams full of dead fish. And the moon doesn't have devastating floods that wash entire communities away because all the vegetation and topsoil have been removed. And I don't think the moon has 450 of its mountains unaccounted for.
Compared to the destroyed mountains of West Virginia, the moon is a field of dreams. One might complain that the moon is a little short on culture, but the coal companies are making sure that southern West Virginia is, too. It's much easier for them to do their business if no one's around. No witnesses. The people flee for their lives and take the remnants of their mountain lore, their knowledge of animals and medicinal plants, their history, and sense of place. Larry Gibson calls it genocide.
So, what does it look like if not the moon? Like the mangled body of a torture victim. Or, metaphorically, like our Constitution does now to anyone who once believed in it. The Robinson Jeffers' quote above comes from his poem Shine, Perishing Republic. It seems sadly ironic to me that Jeffers would advise his children that when corruption in the cities overwhelms them, they can escape to the mountains. Where does one escape to when the mountains are gone? When the mountains have been ground up for profit? Larry Gibson says he used to laugh at people taking pictures of the mountains. He told them, "Why take a picture of a mountain? It's going to be there forever."
Where does Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, think that he is going to escape to?
There are crimes and there are crimes. Here in Maine, where I live, we often are appalled by paper company clear cuts. But, given enough time, poplar will be succeeded by spruce and pine, and the softwoods in turn by maple, birch, and oak. It's even sadly comforting to imagine that if the human species eradicates itself by its insistence on dominating and destroying nature rather than living in harmony with it, nature will, after a good scouring by fire and ice, recover. However, the Appalachian Mountains will not recover. They will not re-grow. When we think of cannibalism, we think of a ritualistic or desperate practice that is morally repugnant. But, imagine a cannibal who eats portions of his own body. It's hardly even a question of morality. It's psychotic. Such is the consumption of the mountains.
Bill McKibben has said that we no longer live in an environment, we live in an economy. If the economy is your standard for reality, then it is also your standard of ethics, just as nature would be if you lived in an environment. If the economy is your reality, your ethic is profit. If your reality is nature, your ethic is conservation and sustainability. Which reality will actually determine whether our species survives?
As Judy Bonds says, Mountaintop Removal is a practice with which we cannot compromise. It must stop. There is no nicer way to destroy the oldest mountains in the world, mountains that began their lives three hundred million years ago when North America and Africa were nudged up against each other.
Many people in the West Virginian and Kentucky have heard the cry of the mountains and the displaced people. They are courageously fighting King Coal. Their lives are threatened frequently. Ever since Massey Energy bulldozed his family cemetery, Larry Gibson has dedicated his life to saving the mountains. Judy Bonds, a former Pizza Hut waitress, won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002 for her efforts. Visit the website of Coal River Mountain Watch (www.crmw.net) and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (www.ohvec.org ) to find out what you can do. This is not just their fight. The U.S. has plans to build 150 more coal burning plants. Coal is the worst of the fossil fuels for CO2 emissions. The forests being buried in West Virginia valleys once absorbed CO2 and mitigated climate change.
Kitty Genovese is now screaming in the West Virginia mountains. She's screaming for our lives as much as hers. Judy Bonds says, "We're selling our children's feet to buy our fancy shoes."
Robert Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine. He will be painting portraits of Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson for his series Americans Who Tell the Truth.