BEREA, Ky. - Last weekend I joined 19 other Kentuckians in a sit-in at the office of Gov. Steve Beshear. We were there to protest his support of mountaintop removal, a technique used by coal-mining companies that, as its name implies, involves blasting away the tops of mountains and hills to get at the coal seams beneath them.
Since it was first used in 1970, mountaintop removal has destroyed some 500 mountains and poisoned at least 1,200 miles of rivers and streams across the Appalachian coal-mining region. Yet Governor Beshear is so committed to the practice that he recently allied with the Kentucky Coal Association in a suit against the Environmental Protection Agency to block more stringent regulations of it. In court his administration’s lawyers referred to public opposition as simply “an unwarranted burden.”
The news media and the rest of the country typically think of mountaintop removal as an environmental problem. But it’s a human crisis as well, scraping away not just coal but also the freedoms of Appalachian residents, people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above.
Over the past six years I’ve visited dozens of people who live at the edge of mountaintop removal sites. They bathe their children in water that has arsenic levels as high as 130 times what the E.P.A. deems safe to drink.
Their roads are routinely destroyed by overloaded trucks; their air is clouded with pollutants. Their schools sit below ponds holding billions of gallons of sludge. Their children lose sleep worrying that the sludge dams will break, releasing the sludge down upon them. It happened 40 years ago at Buffalo Creek, W.Va., killing 125 people, and it could happen again today.
It’s a horrible way to live. And yet, as it does in many other impoverished quarters of America, the news too often avoids covering Appalachia as if it were a no man’s land.
When a 3-year-old Virginia boy was crushed to death in his crib after a half-ton boulder was accidentally (and illegally) dislodged by a mining company, it barely made the national news. Many people around here believe the omission reflected that the child lived in a trailer home in the heart of coal country.
In 2000, 306 million gallons of sludge — 30 times more than the volume of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez — buried parts of Martin County, Ky., as deep as 5 feet. Yet hardly anyone outside the region remembers the disaster, if they ever heard about it.
More recently, my friend Judy’s grandson was playing in a creek when he was suddenly surrounded by dozens of dead fish. Tests later proved that a coal company was releasing polyacrylamide — a cancer-causing agent used to prepare coal for burning — into the creek. When Judy complained to the state, no one replied. She recently died of brain cancer.
I’ve heard dozens of stories like these, but they rarely make it beyond the mountains. Is it any wonder then that Appalachian residents feel invisible?
In fact, invisible is how we’ve been taught to think of ourselves since coal was first discovered here. When I was little, teachers would stand over my desk and tell me that I had to change my accent if I wanted to get ahead in the world. Never mind that I had nearly perfect grammar and spelling.
We were also told the success of the mines mattered above all else, that if we complained about the dust, noise and disrespect pumped out by the mine in our community, people would lose jobs.
The coal companies, the news media and even our own government have all been complicit in valuing Appalachian lives less than those of other Americans. Otherwise, it might be harder for them to get that coal out as quickly and inexpensively as they do.
Those of us who protest mountaintop removal do it for the environment, but we’re also fighting to prove we are not unwarranted burdens. Our water and air are being poisoned, but the most dangerous toxin is the message that people don’t matter.
As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since.