Catherine Porter is a columnist for the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. This article was originally published on Saturday, February 23, 2008.
They’re ripping the tops off mountains in West Virginia coal country to feed our insatiable appetite for power. It’s cheaper that way. And the trees and the animals and the flooding? It may not be pretty, but we’ve got all those dishwashers to run
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA–When you flick on the lights this evening, think of Kayford Mountain. Or what was Kayford Mountain, but now is a sprawling, muddy, trembling construction site 100 metres below Larry Gibson’s home.
Three years ago, Gibson hunted wild boar here, picked gooseberries and peaches, and sat under the shade of white oaks and hickories so thick he couldn’t see the sky.
“Now, you can see the sky below your feet,” Gibson says.
The boars have long scurried away. The trees have been reduced to a heap of pulp. The gooseberries have been bulldozed, replaced by rows of explosives. Just past the “Do Not Enter” sign, the mountain has been brought to its knees – cut down like a giant tree. Instead of gazing 200 metres up to its peak, as Gibson once did, you peer down at its rubbly remains, clawed at by giant shovels and trundled off by bucking yellow dump trucks.
There are no birdsong or rustling leaves – just beeping and grinding, and sounds like a 747 taking off.
A small sliver of the former mountain slumps to one side of the construction, like the last piece of Black Forest cake left amid the deflated balloons and streamers. On top are the trees and soil, then sandstone and shale, and at the bottom, a thick chocolate layer – coal.
“They say they can make the land better than it originally was,” says Chuck Nelson, gazing down sorrowfully from his friend’s property, hands in his pockets. “Who can do a better job than God? This land will never be no good for nothing.”
Except of course, electricity. Which is why all this is happening.
This is the new face of coal mining in Central Appalachia. It is called mountaintop removal. Instead of extracting coal the old-fashioned way, by burrowing, the mountain is extracted from the coal – blown up sequentially to reveal each black seam. Everything left over – trees, soil, plants and rock – is considered “overburden.” It’s dumped into the valleys below, filling them up.
Some say as many as 470 mountains in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia have been flattened this way. For the industry, it’s a financial jackpot – fast, cheap and thorough. But for the mountains, and the communities nestled between them, it’s war.
Their homes have been flooded, walls cracked, wells poisoned, streams polluted; their jobs have been forfeited, cemeteries unearthed and communities abandoned. Many suffer from early-onset dementia and kidney stones. And they’ve lost their ancestral home.
“We’re mountain people. You don’t understand our connection with the land,” says Gibson, who traces his heritage back 120 years to this very spot. He had never ventured beyond the company store, halfway down the mountain, until he was 11. “We didn’t live on the land, we lived with it.”
People who live here think of themselves as collateral damage – accidental victims of a war to feed the nation’s insatiable demand for energy.
What does this have to do with you? This is where Ontario gets 40 per cent of the fuel powering its coal-fired power plants. That means every day you run your dishwasher, you are connected to one of world’s oldest mountain chains, 900 kilometres south of Toronto, which is slowly being flattened, one peak at a time.
“When you go home and flip on your lights,” says Nelson, looking down at the devastation, “do you think of this?”
Most people in the GTA have likely never even seen coal. In southern West Virginia, it’s inescapable.
Within minutes of driving out of the capital, Charleston, a glistening black pyramid flashes before the windshield. Giant silos spit out coal in piles beside the road. Conveyor belts loop down from the sides of mountains like roller-coaster tracks, shuttling coal to massive processing plants. The clapboard houses dotting the valleys are coated with its dust.
A set of flashing lights bars the way as an 80-car train passes, each car brimming with coal. Automobiles share the road with 10-wheelers loaded with it.
From the gold-domed Capitol building itself, coal can be seen on barges, bound downriver.
The state motto is: “Mountaineers are always free.” But it could be: “The coal capital of North America.”
Coal mining began in this region before the American Revolution; for more than a century Central Appalachia was the leading producer in the country – a distinction it lost a decade ago to the Powder River basin in the West. Some call it the state’s blessing. Others call it a curse.
“If you don’t mine coal, you don’t do nothin’,” says Nelson.
Nelson is 52, and a mining veteran, having spent 30 years underground before cashing in his pension and converting to environmental activism. “This is a mono-economic state. We’ve been that way for 200 years.”
Coal is as much part of hillbilly culture as moonshine, banjos and muskrat barbecues. Everyone you meet has a grandfather who worked in the mines. But not this kind of mining. Until two decades ago, coal mining meant crawling underground in metre-high tunnels. Old mine entrances still gape like caves on the mountainsides.
This type of mining isn’t about digging, but blasting. When a site is finished, no trees or holes are left. In most cases, there is no mountain. It’s as though it were a 600-metre-high soft-boiled egg; with the top third cracked open to scoop out the yolk.
First, workers cut down all the trees and rip up the soil with bulldozers. Then, they drill holes a dozen metres or so down and fill the rows of holes with ANFO – ammonium nitrate/fuel oil. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is the same stuff Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building.
That causes an explosion of dust, smoke and boulders – some the size of Volkswagens have landed on Gibson’s property. Next, giant machines carry the debris away. The biggest is called a “drag-line.” It’s basically a 20-storey crane with a bucket capable of carrying 45,000 kilograms of debris – about 30 Honda Accords. The first to arrive in the region was trucked in by 57 tractor- trailers.
The method makes mountaintop mining more efficient and replaces thousands of human workers. While West Virginia hauls out as much coal now as it did 55 years ago, only 21,000 miners work in the state today, compared with 120,000 in 1950.
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