The Violent Remaking of Appalachia – by Jedediah Purdy (The Atlantic – March 2016)

When mining a century’s worth of energy means ruining a landscape for millions of years.

Central Appalachia’s history is the story of coal. At its peak in the mid-20th century, mining employed more than 150,000 people in West Virginia alone, mostly in the state’s otherwise poor and rugged counties.

For decades, the United Mine Workers of America, a muscular, strike-prone union that allied itself with Franklin Roosevelt to support the New Deal, anchored the solidly Democratic highlands where West Virginia meets eastern Kentucky and Virginia’s western-most tip.

In 1921, during the fight to unionize the region’s mines, ten thousand armed miners engaged strike-breakers and an anti-union militia in a five-day gun battle in which more than a hundred people were killed. The Army arrived by presidential order and dispersed the miners, dealing a decade-long setback to the UMWA.

Today, after decades of mechanization, there are only about twenty thousand coal miners in West Virginia, and another sixteen thousand between Kentucky and Virginia. The counties with the greatest coal production have some of the region’s highest unemployment rates, between 10 and 14 percent.

An epidemiological study of the American opiate overdose epidemic found two epicenters where fatal drug abuse leapt more than a decade ago: one was rural New Mexico, the other coal country.

Although jobs have disappeared, Appalachia keeps producing coal. Since 1970, more than two billion tons of coal have come from the central Appalachian coalfields (A-B). West Virginians mined more in 2010 than in the early 1950s, when employment peaked at nearly six times its current level. Back then, almost all coal miners worked underground, emerging at the end of their shifts with the iconic head-lamps and black body-paint of coal dust.

In the 1960s, mining companies began to bulldoze and dynamite hillsides to reach coal veins without digging. This form of strip-mining, called contour mining, caused more visible damage than traditional deep mining, leaving mountains permanently gouged and, sometimes, farmland destroyed.

Today, contour mining seems almost artisanal. Since the 1990s, half the region’s coal has come from “mountaintop removal,” a slightly too-clinical term for demolishing and redistributing mountains. Mining companies blast as much as several hundred feet of hilltop to expose layers of coal, which they then strip before blasting their way to the next layer.

The giant cranes called draglines that move the blasted dirt and coal stand twenty stories high and can pick up 130 tons of rock in one shovel-load. The remaining rubble, called overburden, cannot be reassembled into mountains. Instead, miners deposit it in the surrounding valleys. The result is a massive leveling, both downward and upward, of the topography of the region. According to Appalachian Voices, an advocacy organization, mining has destroyed more than 500 mountains.

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