Brutal coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern USA: With the help of hundreds of tons of explosives, entire mountain ridges are destroyed to get to the black gold. (Photo: © Paul Corbit Brown)
In the east of the USA environmentalists fight against a particularly brutal way of coal mining. Hundreds of tons of explosives are used to destroy entire mountain ridges in order to get at the black gold. Locally, in the coal state of West Virginia, hardly anyone questions the machinations of the coal industry.
17.11.2016 – There are few West Virginia residents who are rebelling against the power of the coal industry and its influence. One of them is Paul Corbit Brown, president of the local NGO Keeper of the Mountains. The foundation has a small office in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, and fights to preserve the mountains. According to the latest estimates, not even 50 people live in Charleston anymore.000 people, the entire state is home to 1.8 million Americans.
The people of West Virginia live widely scattered throughout the country, they love nature and the Appalachian mountains. Almost the entire state is in this mountain range that stretches from northeastern Maine to Georgia in the southern U.S. Meanwhile, despite the stunning natural beauty of their state, the vast majority of West Virginians look the other way when it comes to the methods of coal companies. Because corporations like Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal and Blackhawk Mining guarantee jobs and prosperity, or what’s left of it since the recent crisis that has gripped the coal industry across the U.S.
Coal companies in bankruptcy
West Virginia, the largest coal state by coal workers, has been going downhill for several years. Tens of thousands of coal jobs have been lost in recent years, numerous large companies have been forced to file for bankruptcy, some will survive the proceedings just fine, others have been bought out by obscure investors. Many mines have had to close, especially underground ones. Mining continues almost regardless of international developments in the energy market, climate promises and decrees from Washington. And in West Virginia, that means first and foremost: mountains continue to be destroyed. That’s because much of the Appalachian state’s coal is extracted through the so-called mountaintop removal process.
Over 500 mountains already destroyed
Mountaintop Removal (MTR) has been used in Appalachia since the 1970s, in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. NGOs estimate that MTR coal mining in an area nearly 5.000 square kilometers is being or has been operated. The National Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 6.500 square kilometers of destroyed forest in the Appalachian Mountains. Most other U.S. states have already banned these methods. In Appalachia, however, millions of tons of coal are stored under the mountains and arouse covetousness. Over 500 mountains have already been destroyed by blasting away the tops of mountains.
From bottom to top: Excavators and blasters slowly approach the top of the mountain. (Photo: © Paul Corbit Brown)
Toxic tailings in the valley
Most of the MTR coal in the U.S. continues to come from West Virginia. There, the impact on people, animals and nature is devastating. Before blasting, all vegetation on the mountain tops is removed, in some cases the coal seams are up to 180 meters below the surface. Many thousands of tons of explosives are needed to move such massive masses of earth, according to local NGOs. Huge machines are then used to dig for the black gold. Most of the toxic overburden from the mines is dumped into the valleys, which the companies call "valley fills. Since the amendment of the Clean Water Act under the Bush administration in 2002, this approach is even legal. In the process, waterways in the valleys are poisoned with heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic, sulfates and other chemicals from open-pit mining, and headwater streams are buried.
Coal calls the shots
About three million people live in the vicinity of MTR mines, several studies show that water and air pollution there is much higher than in unaffected Appalachian communities. The advantage for the companies is clear: it is often possible to expose almost the entire coal seams, and much fewer workers are needed than with conventional methods. Coal revenue per employee is up, and so is profit.
Permits are obtained by the companies without problems, for almost all areas, report observers on the ground. Conservation areas have even been reportedly moved or removed, says environmentalist and resident Paul Corbit Brown. His small NGO is trying to draw attention to the enormous impact of coal mining on people and biodiversity with protests, blockades and information events.
They also work with international environmental organizations such as Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth and the German NGO urgewald. So far, it has achieved little. "Because West Virginia is a coal state," Brown says. "They’re in charge here". All leaders, Democrat and Republican, and most people in the state are dependent on the coal industry, he said. He is regularly threatened, he says, and most recently his email account has been hacked. The stories he tells would not be expected in West Virginia but rather in the Brazilian rainforest, where oil companies systematically harass environmentalists and do not shy away from armed violence.
Spoil containing heavy metals and chemicals are often dumped into the valley. (Photo: © Paul Corbit Brown)
Newborns with heart defects
Like nearly all West Virginia residents, Brown has family members who worked in the coal industry. His grandfather was already working in the coal mines when he was ten years old, and his father can no longer work because he suffers from severe coal dust lung. In any case, the numbers he references are frightening: the public should not swim in three-quarters of the region’s waterways and lakes, officials advise. Only at certain times of the year should self-caught fish be consumed, and then only certain species.
In fact, life expectancy in West Virginia is strikingly low, averaging 75.4 years according to official figures. This puts the coal state in second-to-last place among all U.S. states. Hawaii residents live nearly six years longer. Hardly surprising given the massive impact of coal mining by MTR. The 19 studies published in the past four years on the effects of MTR coal mining show the disastrous health consequences: "Compared to mortality rates in other parts of Appalachia, coal mining areas experience 1.460 additional deaths each year that can’t be explained by age or other factors," recently stated Professor Michael Hendryx of the Institute of Public Health at Indiana University. He has been researching the topic for years. The risk of heart defects in newborns is also 181 percent higher in MTR areas, according to his studies.
Destruction with German money
The drastic impact of coal mining in the mountains of Central Appalachia on the natural environment becomes clear when you visit a former MTR mine. About an hour’s drive south of Charleston, the barely paved road winds up the mountain to Kayford Mountain; only experienced drivers with a pickup truck can get up here. Arriving at the top, an unusual picture presents itself: there is no mountain top to climb, no trees as everywhere else. There is no vegetation at all, only a kind of moonscape with some grass and now and then small plants. Huge masses of earth and rock must have been moved here.
Few plants remain at Kayford Mountain. (Photo: © Paul Corbit Brown)
Per acre, good 4.000 square feet, live here in the valleys about 1.000 different animal and plant species, says NGO President Paul Corbit Brown. The strong vegetation and many insects speak for a great biodiversity, biologists call the Appalachians one of the most important "biodiversity hotspots" in North America. This is the area where the big coal producers operate their MTR coal mining operations.
At Kayford Mountain, they have raged hard, with workers blasting away an estimated 200 meters of elevation in 20 years to get to the coal seams. Now the coal has been dredged, the overburden dumped into the valley with heavy metals and chemicals. It was once the highest mountain in the area, says Brown’s brother Daniel. No more forest will ever grow here, environmentalists say. The earth is simply missing, because what is left at the end after the coal dredges is only rubble.
Right next to Kayford Mountain, coal miner Blackhawk Mining has opened a new mine and is blasting away at the mountain with German money. Because the German coal company RWE, through a subsidiary, has been a co-owner of the U.S. coal producer since 2012. Deutsche Bank is a loyal backer and the dirty coal from West Virginia is also burned in German coal-fired power plants. In the background of Kayford Mounatin and the newly opened mine are two more hilltops that have been blasted away.
According to the NGO Appalachian Voices, analysis shows that ten percent of the land in central Appalachia has already been affected by coal mining. Although demand for coal in the U.S. is falling rapidly and world prices are low, mountaintops continue to be blasted away in West Virginia. Apart from a few environmentalists, no one here has ever heard of an energy turnaround. Clemens White