Letter from Europe: Foreign Disbelief of Topless America

Spoleto, Umbria--When President Barack Obama trundled into the bel
paese of Italy for the G8 gathering last month, some of my neighbors in
the verdant hills of Umbria were surprised to learn about their
country's small but lingering dependence on coal-fired plants. Draping
banners down five coal-fired towers of carbon emissions that week,
Greenpeace reminded the European gathering--and President Obama--of the
inconvenient reality of coal.

Coal mining in Italy is considered a relic of yesteryear. Only a few
miles from this Umbrian hilltown, the last smoldering lignite mine
closed a couple of decades ago after a series of fatal accidents, and
with it went the haze of sulfuric acid, mercury, lead and fly ash that
cloaked much of Europe.

But, the greatest surprise--sheer disbelief--for my neighbors in
Italy's protected Umbrian range was reserved for our own American style
of Big Coal-gone-wild--that federally sanctioned process of mountaintop
removal mining that has laid waste to over a million acres of our
nation's most diverse and ancient mountains in Appalachia, in order to
produce less than 5-7 percent of national coal production.

Blowing up your mountains? The Italian asked again. How is that possible under President Obama?

It's hard for any foreigner to believe that President Obama has
quietly acquiesced to the marketing and machinations of Big Coal, and
allows millions of pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives to
rip across our nation's first frontier, topple hundreds of mountains,
and ruin and displace historic mountain communities--that would have
easily been granted regional protection by the United Nations or the
European Community.

In fact, when I describe the process of mountaintop removal, and its
38-year reign of terror in Appalachia, no one believes me, so I am
compelled to pull out my laptop and show them pictures and videos,
including the creative work from Chicago's environmental-artist
collective called Topless America (https://www.toplessamerica.org/).
Here's their latest journey to Appalachia:

Here is an incredible list of the scores of films on mountaintop
removal documented by film critic and historian Steve Fesenmaier:


And here's a trailer for the forthcoming film documentary, On Coal
River, that expertly details the human costs of "minimizing adverse
environmental impacts," as the Obama administration likes to say, of
mountaintop removal:

Last month in the west country of Ireland, I chatted in a pub with a
shopkeeper from County Roscommon. We shared stories of our
grandfathers, both of whom were coal miners. After telling me about
Ireland's plans for off-shore wind turbines and other renewable energy
projects outside Galway, the shopkeeper urged me to go and visit the
Arigna Coal Mine in Derreenavoggy, County Roscommon. His grandfather
had worked in the underground mine there; my grandfather worked in
various underground mines in southern Illinois.

The Arigna mine is part of the Miners Way Historical Trail, which
treks along the gorgeous hills and valleys of Arigna. Closed in 1990,
after being mined underground for 400 years, the Arigna mine--the last
working coal mine in Ireland--has been turned into a heritage site. The
shopkeeper raved about the natural beauty of the area--his own "little
Appalachia," he claimed. He told me to take a hike after I visited the
museum. As the coal mine brochure hailed, "Arigna is situated in a
picturesque valley with breathtaking scenery and unspoiled landscape."

Unspoiled landscape.

My grandparent's 150-year-old ancestral homestead in the Shawnee
National Forest in southern Illinois was stripmined ten years ago this
month and has been turned into a leveled graveyard of foreign

Over 1.5 million acres of hardwood deciduous forests, and over 500
mountains that would have been celebrated as a national park in any
other region in the world, have been wiped out in Appalachia from
mountaintop removal, the devastated ruins flatted into monuments of

I told the Irish shopkeeper he needed to visit Appalachia to believe it.

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