When you fly over the Appalachians of eastern Kentucky, you can see the gray scars on the mountains, pockmarks reaching far to the north and east that are the results of a kind of strip-mining called mountaintop removal. Most Kentuckians never see that part of the state because it is so isolated, and most people across the nation (which burns the premium coal from these mountains) don't know how costly their cheap electricity really is. It could break your heart to know.
It takes just a dozen guys with giant D-9 bulldozers about a year to wreck a mountain. They dynamite it, then shove the shattered vegetation and topsoil (called spoil or overburden) down into the valleys, followed by chunks of bedrock.
Everything in this horrific pile dies. Even the streams are buried. Every rain is a flood. Slurry ponds spill black sludge. People living near mine sites hear the cacophony of dynamite, dozers and coal trucks 24-7. Their houses flood and crack. Their children come home from school sick, covered with coal dust. The well water is black.
There is a long history here of struggle against exploitation by coal companies. Now, in ever more dramatic circumstances, people are fighting to preserve their land, their homes, their communities, their cemeteries and their lives.
Appalachians love the mountains fiercely, yet mining is a way of life. Many don't want to protest the destruction of their mountains for fear the region will lose jobs. But nearly two-thirds of the mining jobs in Kentucky have been lost in the past 25 years because mountaintop mining is more efficient than deep mining.
The United States gets half its electricity from coal, and about a seventh of that comes from Kentucky. But coal money has not lifted eastern Kentucky out of poverty. In fact, the strip-mined counties have the highest poverty rates in the state, not much improved from when President Johnson visited about 40 years ago and declared war on poverty. Eighty percent of the coal, more than $2 billion worth, leaves the state, much of the profit going to distant corporations.
The coal industry brags about reclaiming the land. It envisions factories and golf courses on flat land, and it will repeat this sunny song to anyone who will listen. But the true wealth of these flattened mountains can't be replaced.
It's a loss not only to Appalachia but to the entire nation. According to Erik Reece, in "Lost Mountain," a new book about mountaintop mining, the Appalachians are one of a kind — there has never been a forest as diverse as this ancient mesophytic ecosystem. When the glaciers retreated, leaving a sort of strip-mined landscape, the unscathed Appalachian forests reseeded the continent. They remain the continent's seedbed, Mr. Reece says.
With mountaintop removal, the ancient forests won't come back in a hurry. The fertile topsoil, which took thousands of years to form, can't be recreated. The timber that might offer economically profitable, self-sustaining industry is flung aside, along with other valuable plants, animal species and minerals. Any miracle medicines the forests might yield will be gone. It's our Brazilian rainforest.
The 2006 economic outlook is bleak for the Kentucky mountains, where people's lives are secondary to coal profits, as they have been for more than a century. Eastern Kentuckians are forced to trade their heritage and their children's future for jobs now. And this ecological disaster promises to seriously harm us all if it continues at this pace.
Bobbie Ann Mason is writer in residence at the University of Kentucky and an editor of "Missing Mountains," an anthology about mountaintop removal.
© 2006 The New York Times