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the Tennessean

Mountaintop Removal Destroys Wildlife and the Way of Life for Local Residents

Nell Levin

Imagine earth-shaking explosions, rock and debris flying through the air, and mountains blasted to smithereens by explosions 100 times more powerful than those that blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City.

When the dust settles, the remaining land looks like another planet: no trees, no plants, no animals - just a barren moonscape.

These are the shocking images of Jeff Barrie's documentary, Kilowatt Ours, that prompted me to write the song, "Don't Blow Up the Mountain."

Although I don't live in Appalachia, I have a great love for the culture of the mountains. I play old-time music and love the rollicking beat of a group of fiddles and banjos playing together. But who will teach these age-old fiddle tunes to the next generation if communities are forced from the mountains and figuratively and literally torn apart?

Those of us who don't live in Appalachia may be not be aware of the destruction caused by mountaintop removal. According to the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, 450 mountains have been destroyed to date. United Mountain Defense calls this ecocide: the killing of the environment. In fact, mountaintop removal has been dubbed "strip mining on steroids."

In order to access the thin layers of valuable low-sulfur coal buried within the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau and southern Appalachia, coal companies must destroy the surrounding wildlife and habitats.

First, the forests are cut clear: trees are cut down and the topsoil is carted away along with vegetation, destroying wildlife habitat in the process. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 2,200 miles of Appalachian forest will be cleared by the year 2012.

Next, the coal companies blast off the mountaintop with explosives strong enough to crack the foundations of nearby houses. Oftentimes, the soil and rock left behind by these explosions are dumped into valleys below. In fact, coal companies have buried over 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams.

Millions of gallons of waste from coal processing, called sludge or slurry, are stored in open pools. One of the worst ecological disasters in eastern United States occurred on October 11, 2000, when a coal sludge impoundment in Kentucky's Martin County broke through an underground mine and poured 306 million gallons down the Tug Fork River.

The spill polluted hundreds of miles of waterways, contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents, and killed all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek.

In the final step of mountaintop removal, companies bring in heavy machinery to collect the coal. As tall as 20-story buildings and weighing up to eight million pounds, these machines make it possible for the coal companies to hire fewer workers than used in traditional underground mining. Mountaintop removal extracts two and a half times as much coal per hour than underground mines. As a result, the coal industry lost about 10,000 jobs from 1990 to 1997.

The counties that host mountaintop removal are often the poorest in Appalachia: 37 percent of the residents of McDowell County, West Virginia, which produces the most coal in the state, live in poverty.

This destructive method of coal mining worsens conditions by destroying land, resources and communities, pushing these mountain residents deeper into poverty.

"Mountaintop removal mining is a callous, irresponsible, egregious method of mining coal," says Janice A. Nease, executive director of the Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia. "It creates false prosperity - enriching the few at a great cost to large areas of Appalachian people and the environment. Southern West Virginia has become an energy sacrifice zone in the nation's quest for cheap energy."

It's clear that mountaintop removal is ruining our majestic natural environment and causes harsh ecological damage to our rivers and streams. It's time to put a stop to mountaintop removal once and for all.

Nell Levin is the coordinator of Tennessee Alliance for Progress. Kilowatt Ours will be shown at 8 p.m. on Oct. 22 on WKNO in Memphis and at 7 p.m. on Oct. 24 on WNPT in Nashville. A video for Levin's song "Don't Blow Up the Mountain," directed by Ron Ault, which includes footage of the Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek destruction can be seen at

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