Surface mining’s price – by Rebecca Schmoyer (Albany Times Union – July 26, 2014)

Mountaintop coal removal leaves environmental and health impacts

A few weeks ago, I stood on top of Armstrong Mountain. The day was clear and the valley below filled with spruce, fir and hardwood forest. Unbroken ridges extended into the distance. As my final summit of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, it was a moment of accomplishment. But while I took in the view, I was troubled by a somber national milestone.

As of this year, over 500 of the Appalachian Mountains have been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. It’s time for New York state to divest from this industry.

According to the Office of State Comptroller’s 2013 asset report, the state has millions invested in companies that practice what the industry decorously calls “surface mining.” But the impact of mountaintop removal mining on the people and landscape of central Appalachia is far from superficial. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the industry has left 1.2 million acres, or over 2,000 square miles, of barren, scarred land — an area bigger than the state of Delaware. And the devastation continues.

A few days later, Vernon Haltom and I are standing on a flattened ridge in southwestern West Virginia. Here, in the dust above Coal River Valley, summertime means blasting.

“They’re at it six days a week,” says Haltom, executive director of Naoma, W.Va.-based Coal River Mountain Watch.

We gaze across an enormous plateau of exposed earth and pulverized rock. In the distance, two front-end loaders gnaw at the debris, dwarfed by the scale of the empty, grey landscape.

Not long ago this was Kayford Mountain. Rising nearly 3,000 feet, its slopes were blanketed in trees and plants and were home to birds, mammals and amphibians. Generations of families lived here. Then blasting began. In a few years, most of the mountain was reduced to rubble and accompanying dust. Now, day and night, the bulldozers shove this “spoil” into a nearby valley. Relentlessly, it goes on.

Five million tons of explosives are detonated daily in Appalachia to blow the tops off mountains and extract coal, says Haltom, a former U.S. Air Force weapons safety officer. That’s the equivalent to 4,000 tomahawk missiles unleashed each day above homes, small businesses, churches and schools.

Mountaintop removal has demolished 293 mountains in Kentucky, 135 mountains in West Virginia, 67 mountains in Virginia and six mountains in Tennessee. One-third of Wise County, Va., has been blasted away.

“It’s amazing how fast the topography changes. It’s surreal,” says 51-year-old Haltom, who is married and has a 3-year-old son.

The industry stores billions of gallons of coal sludge, a toxic by-product, in massive ridge-top lakes. West Virginia is now home to the largest lake of sludge in the western hemisphere — Massey Energy’s 7-billion-gallon Brushy Fork impoundment. When dams fail, entire communities are inundated with lava-like sludge.

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