SOS: Day 12,065 of Mountaintop Removal Disaster: Appalachia is Rising (Again)

Jeff Biggers Aug 3, 2010

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy in the coalfields — except from dust to dawn, when untold millions of pounds of explosives are detonated across 24 states in the nation, raining down silica and coal dust, contaminating wells and watersheds, sending boulders the size of bowling balls into the homes of American citizens.

Dear Media: It’s Day 12,065 of the mountaintop removal mining disaster.

Dear readers in the 48 states that burn stripmined coal: American residents on the frontlines of the coal wars need your help and financial support NOW.

August 3rd — it was on this day in 1977, a liberal Democrat president who campaigned to end the strip-mining wars signed the admittedly “watered down” Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act as an act of political compromise.

We all love President Jimmy Carter and his diplomatic efforts now, don’t we? Back then, stunned coalfield residents who had waged a ten-year campaign to abolish strip-mining, listened to a well-meaning president complain that the SMCRA bill still “allows the mining companies to cut off the tops of Appalachian mountains to reach entire seams of coal.”

The crime of mountaintop removal — as Al Gore once said — was federally sanctioned.

Dear Jimmy Carter — they’re still cutting off the tops of Appalachian mountains to generate George Power Co. electricity for your farm in Plains, Georgia.

As Rob Perks of NRDC asks: “When, if ever, will the Obama administration realize that it’s not enough to regulate an atrocity — mountaintop removal coal mining must be abolished.”

Says Teri Blanton, of the wonderful Kentuckians for the Commonwealth:

In some ways we really need to consider SMCRA a failure. The federal government, and the states that administer the program, seem to lack the spine to regulate as well as they could. It’s been more than 30 years and we are losing our mountains faster and in bigger chucks. That sure sounds like failure to me. The federal government turned the program over to the states and walked away. The states have never shown either the will or the competence to administer or enforce the law. The message seems to be, if you do your job too effectively you will be fired. Kentucky proved that about a year ago.

Actually, it’s more like Day 14,600 of the mountaintop removal crisis, if we count all the way back to the first mountaintop removal operation in Cannelton Hollow in Raleigh County, West Virginia in 1970. Bullpush Mountain was the first American mountain to die for our coal-fired sins, America. More than 500 Appalachian mountains have joined the carnage.

But who’s counting anymore? Big Coal has been strip-mining our hills and farms and poisoning our watersheds in Illinois since the 1850s, when the first commercial strip-mining operations got their groove in Vermillion County. The war continues. Local farmers are now fighting plans for a new mine in that same community.

If we can end the war in Iraq, why can’t we end the 150-year strip-mining wars and transition to renewable energy sources for our electricity?

But then again, weren’t we supposed to win the War on Poverty in Appalachia, too?

The levels of impoverishment and economic ruin in strip-mined coalfields areas rival those prior to the War on Poverty. In a line: Mountaintop removal and strip-mining have stripped jobs, stripped economies, and stripped the people.

In truth, the same bureaucratic regulatory policies behind the War on Poverty belie the bureaucratic regulatory policies steering our nation’s reckless coal mining policies: Despite their well-meaning rhetoric, the feds have institutionalized the crime of mountaintop removal mining as a way of life.

Says Vietnam War veteran Bo Webb, who lives under a mountaintop removal site in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia:

We’ve had 1 1/2 years of Obama and still no abolition of mountaintop removal (MTR). We have met with CEQ, EPA, OSMRE, local, state, and fed representatives, still no end to MTR. I believe that is a reflection on our efforts as a movement. Not that our efforts have been lacking, but obviously they have been somewhat ineffective. I think that some people may now be comfortable with continuing a dialogue with enforcement agencies and congressional members thinking that we’re getting somewhere, we’re close, let’s keep talking. But what I’m observing is that we are reaching out to them, they are not reaching out to us. If we shut up and go away, case closed, bomb Appalachia.

But here’s the good news: Appalachians are rising (again).

Back in the 1960s, an old labor organizer and Appalachian writer chastised the bureaucratic mindset that allowed the War on Poverty to ignore the root causes of poverty — mainly, the grip of absentee Big Coal. In his Tom Paine-inspired pamphlet, Poverty Pays If You Ain’t Poor, Don West declared:

If we native mountaineers can now determine to organize and save ourselves, save our mountains from the spoilers who tear them down, pollute our streams, and leave grotesque areas of ugliness, there is hope… It is time to realize nobody from the outside is ever going to save us from bad conditions unless we make our own stand.

There are a lot of unknown and fearless Appalachians making a stand — the Alliance for Appalachia is the coalition of the nonprofit groups. But a lot of amazing activists are working outside the mainstream organizations.

And for the readers in the 48 states that burn stripmined coal, you need to pull out your wallets and support their efforts on the frontlines of the coal wars:

Bo Webb and Appalachia Rising

Appalachia Rising is a planned march on Washington, D.C., Sept. 25-27. Says Webb:

Now is the most critical and urgent time we have faced as organizations and individuals in this struggle. We have been united, but scattered. We have been focused, but diluted. Appalachia Rising provides a platform for grassroots organizations, individuals and big greens to come together in solidarity to set in motion the challenge we face as a united people to protect our God given right to demand clean water for us and all future mankind. Appalachia Rising will demand that we establish this much needed mandate by calling for the total abolition of mountaintop removal.

Judy Bonds and the Coal River Mountain Watch

Judy Bonds is the heroic godmother of the anti-strip-mining movement today, and an inspiration to a generation of clean energy activists across the country. And Coal River Mountain Watch is not only on the frontlines of the mountaintop removal war, but a leader in launching endeavors for sustainable and renewable energy.

Bob Kincaid and Head-On Radio

Broadcasting from West Virginia to the world for more than seven years, Kincaid was among the first radio commentators to begin drawing sustained, national attention to mountaintop removal and what it does to communities. All told, Bob has probably devoted more broadcast time to mountaintop removal than all other broadcast outlets taken together. He does it not only because West Virginia is his home, and has been home to his family for upward of nine generations, but because the disaster of mountaintop removal has effects far downstream and downwind of the Appalachian mountains. It takes money to run a radio — Bob deserves as much support as possible.

Climate Ground Zero

The merry nonviolent tricksters in the trenches of the West Virginia coalfields, Climate Ground Zero is the inspiring collective of direct action advocates, who have put their bodies on the line to defy Big Coal, stop the daily machinations of strip-mining, and go to jail.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth

More than half of the mountaintop removal destruction takes place in Eastern Kentucky, and KFTC has been on the frontlines with their numerous campaigns. Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner in Harlan County, has been one of their great spokespersons:

Ken Hechler for U.S. SenateKen Hechler, the 95-year-old former US Congressman and the first legislator to introduce a bill to end strip-mining in 1970, is running for US Sen. Robert Byrd’s empty seat. Ken Hechler deserves a Medal of Honor for his lifetime work on behalf of coal miners and coalfield communities.

Marie Gunnoe and the Twilight Campaign

Marie Gunnoe, the Goldman Award winner, is helping the campaign to save the community of Twilight, West Virginia from being disappeared by Big Coal.

And please support the incredible ranks of filmmakers chronicling mountaintop removal, including these most recent efforts:

Chad Stevens and The Coal War

On Coal River

Deep Down

Coal Country

Black Diamonds

Mountaintop Removal

Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. To read more of his reporting, visit

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