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Norman Wirzba

Throwaway People, Throwaway Land

The impact of "mountaintop removal."

In August 2004, a massive boulder loosened by mining blasts rolled down a Virginia hillside, crushing to death the sleeping three-year-old Jeremy Davidson. In the spring of 2000, soon-to-be college graduate Darlies Carter was returning home from work when she was struck head-on and killed by an out-of-control, overloaded coal truck driven by a Xanax-intoxicated driver. In October of the same year, over 300 million gallons of toxic coal sludge—thirty times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill—moved lava-like through eastern Kentucky and into West Virginia, choking to death everything in its path.

These tragedies did not make the national news. Nor will the many similar stories of ruined homes and gardens, poisoned water-wells, run-over children, flash floods, and destroyed headwater streams. Why? Because this is happening in Appalachia. Appalachian people and their region simply do not register in the national consciousness, even though their work and land is responsible for over 50 percent of the electricity that runs our nation. Listening to their heartache, as I did recently on an author's tour of mining-ravaged eastern Kentucky, and attending to the history of this region, one can well understand the frustration of a Martin County resident who said (referring to the sustained attention and assistance given to the disaster in Prince William Sound), "We're just not quite as cute as those otters." Given our national neglect and the naked greed and aggression of the coal industry, the stated conclusion of many Appalachian residents is that they have become "throwaway people."

More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau said that people know the natural world only as robbers. In order to make more money, we will stop at nothing. Armed with the latest technology, we now have the capability to blow the whole creation to hell. As the history of Appalachia and its people so clearly shows, it is a capability that is being fully realized and refined.

Missing Mountains, which consists of a collection of poems, essays, short fiction, and photographs, is the first installment coming from several of Kentucky's best known and emerging writers and artists who have committed themselves to bringing a halt to mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. MTR represents our extractive economy at its most egregiously violent. In this practice, rather than burrowing into and under a mountain to extract the seams of coal, engineers simply bulldoze a mountaintop clear of the rich vegetation and soil, pushing it into the valleys below. Then holes sixty feet deep and as wide as a basketball are filled with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (the same mixture used by Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Oklahoma City Federal Building) and set off. Thousands of tons of rock and earth explode into the air (sometimes hitting residences and cracking home foundations below). Bulldozers return to the site to push this debris into the hollows. This process continues relentlessly until the coal seams are exposed. Now the coal can easily and cheaply be loaded onto lines of trucks that then haul the coal to be cleaned and then shipped (mostly) to electricity-producing power plants.

From a short-term economic standpoint this mining method makes perfect sense. Monster-size machines operating above ground require far fewer workers than conventional mining (in a little over 20 years mining jobs in Kentucky were cut by nearly two thirds from approximately 36,000 in 1979 to 13,000 in 2003). Moreover, we need to access the coal quickly in a time of rising oil prices and volatile oil markets. But from an ecological and cultural standpoint, MTR represents robbery and violence gone wild as vast stretches of Appalachia are reduced to a lunar-like landscape and one small community after another is torn apart or vacated by coal politics.

How does this region, which is home to one of the richest and most biologically diverse forests in the world, come to be reduced to rubble, debris, choked and poisoned streams, and failed reclamation projects? As writers from Missing Mountains make plain, we have lost the ability to see clearly and concretely, and with an eye to what is valuable and enduring. For the sake of our own convenience and comfort we have supported and made extremely wealthy the many companies that have turned Appalachia into a colony to be abused for its natural resources. We don't sense the contradiction—the moral failure—evident in our professed love for scenic places and our simultaneous destruction of them. We have, as Bob Sloan says, become "moral midgets," unable to appreciate the equivalence between MTR and the man who professes to love his wife as he beats her to death.

Erik Reece's Lost Mountain does a masterful job holding the many contradictions and failures of our economic life up for consideration. He takes us on a year-long tour that chronicles the destruction of Lost Mountain in Perry County, Kentucky. Along the way, we are given lessons in the natural and cultural histories of the region, and so begin to appreciate the extent of what is being lost in the whirl of bulldozers, explosions, draglines, and trucks. Even more important, we are given intimate glimpses into the lives of residents who bear directly and daily the effects of this ecological and social catastrophe. We see the courage and determination of people like Daymon Morgan, Teri Blanton, Steve Peake, and Mickey McCoy, who are trying to protect this region and its people from ruthless coal operators and the local, state, and national regulating bodies that all seem to be in their pockets.

The courage they need is tremendous, particularly as government policy surrounding mining practices and reclamation efforts has moved steadily to give coal executives everything they want: maximum profit and zero responsibility. Reece observes that we live in a Kafkaesque world in which residents can go to a public hearing where officials from the Office of Surface Mining indifferently take notes on the catastrophic effects of weakened regulations or lack of enforcement, knowing all the while that nothing will change. After all, in this strange world the very people who have spent their lives protecting and profiting from the coal industry are now regulating it. McCoy says it simply: "The watchdogs have become the guard dogs of the industry."

There are those who say that coal is going to save Appalachia by providing jobs and making flat land available for industrial and recreational development. But as one resident said in my hearing, "It's a big lie that coal's gonna save Kentucky; coal hasn't saved us in a hundred damned years!" Coal can't save Kentucky or West Virginia (coal counties are still among the poorest in the nation) because the current means of its extraction destroys forests, watersheds, valleys, mountains, farms, gardens, and the families and communities they support. What we need, contends Reece, are economic ventures that take a real interest in protecting and sustaining the life that is already there, rather than a continuing history in which outside coal corporations hire a few workers, extract the mineral wealth, and then leave poisoned streams and water wells, flood and mudslide-prone valley "fill," and ruined roads. This can be done with the right kind of investment in and concern for a region that has yet to gain national respect. The point is not to tell Appalachian people what to do. Instead we need to help free them from the yoke of absentee coal moguls so they can create a future for themselves, a future that honors the region and its peoples.

Coal Hollow bears witness, through nearly one hundred black-and-white photographs and eleven oral histories, to the painful history that has culminated in MTR. It successfully makes a personal connection in a way that facts and statistics simply cannot. These photographs depict dust and destruction, the despair of children, the families and homes of forgotten people who live in a strikingly beautiful landscape recently ravaged by greed and neglect. As Melanie Light explains, Appalachia is a case study that demonstrates what will happen in a global economy made profitable through the destruction of unprotected places and the degradation of cheap labor. Just as we have rendered coal workers and coal communities invisible—so that we can consume electricity without shame—we are now in the process of rendering foreign workers and regions invisible so we can enjoy cheap goods and services. Seeing these photos, and listening to the stories of former miners, ought to convince us that there is no such thing as "cheap coal" or "clean coal energy." The costs are always high, and in the forms of grinding poverty, feelings of futility and hopelessness, chronic respiratory illness, and dirty streams.

Randy Wilson, a pastor in eastern Kentucky, led the author's tour and community members in song before we listened to the stories of residents who have endured and are now trying to overcome the heartache that is MTR. We sang: "Sowin' on the mountain / Reapin' in the Valley; / You gonna reap / Just what you sow." For the sake of "cheap" energy we have been sowing a mixture of explosives and bulldozers. What we are reaping is a sick land, a land devoid of the rich potential inherent in created places. Though we who live far from the coal fields enjoy a life of convenience and unsurpassed luxury—for us the lights are always on and the temperature steady—the people of Appalachia will continue to know despair unless, as Reece notes, we all come to understand ourselves as part of a large social and biotic whole that is of great value, and deserving of our protection and care.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association (KCA), would have us believe that MTR is "creating land for sustainable development for future generations." Reading the KCA website you might even think there is a divine mandate fueling MTR, since it quotes Isaiah 40:4-5: "Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rugged land shall be made plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together." Somehow I doubt that bulldozers and bombs, wasted lives and throwaway landscapes, are the means of the revealing of God's glory.

Norman Wirzba is professor of philosophy at Georgetown College in Kentucky. He is the author most recently of Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Brazos), and the editor of The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land (Univ. Press of Kentucky).

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