Devastating view from the mountaintop
Strip-mining method wrecks land, lives
of its people
Herald Leader May 1 2005
By Contributing Columnist Silas House
Coal mining is a part of me. My grandfather lost his leg
in the Leslie County deep mines in the 1940s. When he was
able, he went back into the mines and worked 20 more years.
My Uncle Sam was in a mining accident that left him branded
by a coal tattoo across his left cheekbone. I can recall my
Uncle Jack coming home from the mines with the coal dust so
thick in his lashes that it looked as if he had applied mascara.
They all loved their jobs. Mining allowed them to rise out
I am proud of my grandfather's lost leg. Proud of my uncle's
coal tattoo. They are symbols of determination and hard work.
But slowly, my love for the industry turned to a love-hate
relationship. When I was a teenager, there was a strip mine
directly across from our house. We breathed the dust and listened
to the groan of machinery for more than a year. I spent long
hours on the ridge above the mines, watching and mourning
the loss of the woods and rolling pasture I had played in
all my life.
It wouldn't have been so bad if the land had been treated
respectfully. But it wasn't. Trees were thrown aside like
useless things. The good topsoil was buried beneath clay and
rock. Still, I knew that coal mining was an important part
of our economy.
A couple of years ago, I got my first glimpse of mountaintop
removal --in which the summit of a mountain is removed to
extract coal -- along Ky. 80 in Knott County. The mountain
that just the spring before had been crowded with a thousand
redbuds was now a barren plateau dotted by shoots of brown
grass and struggling saplings.
Late last month, 14 writers met on Lower Bad Creek to view
active mountaintop removal. These were writers who are widely
known and those who are just starting out, all Kentuckians,
and all concerned citizens.
We walked through a healthy forest near the mining and viewed
the wealth of herbs, plants, trees and water that was being
threatened on all sides. We looked down on a strip mine. We
drove through the valley and saw plateaus that had once been
mountains on either side of us.
We drove 20 miles to Hindman. I counted eight mountains that
had been removed along the road. Gone forever. Some were still
dusty, noisy messes of bulldozers and exposed coal seams.
Others had been reclaimed, but I saw no evidence of healthy
forests or fertile pastures there.
The sites are usually in isolated areas where as few people
as possible can see them. Since the coal industry's major
defense is that it's providing much-needed flat land for development,
I wonder how many people are going to drive the winding, crumbling
roads into places like Lower Bad Creek to shop or build homes
on subdivided land. Not many, I assume.
At a town meeting in Hindman, we were greeted by a standing-room-only
crowd of people who had come to share the stories of their
experiences with mountaintop removal. These people live with
mountaintop removal every day; they are a part of the land.
It is their stories that matter.
Clinton Henshoe told of the blasts that went off every two
hours throughout the sleepless nights. One of his neighbors
told me that his grandchildren wouldn't even come to stay
with him because they were afraid of the blasts.
"They think the house is going to get swallowed up,"
A young woman lives on a road so damaged by coal trucks that
ambulances aren't able to reach the older people who live
Several people told of reporting damage to government officials,
only to be told that the flooding, damaged foundations and
polluted air were all "acts of God."
One woman complained about the mining near her so much that
the company offered her 150 times the amount her property
had been appraised for. "But that's our family land,"
she said. "We've worked that land for over 100 years.
Our sweat and blood is in it."
There were tales of water that ran red as blood with sulfur.
"Our water smells like rotten eggs. I can't drink or
cook with it," Erica Urias said. "My husband is
a diabetic and goes through about 2 gallons of
water a day. We have to buy that. But I can't buy enough water
to bathe my child."
A man drilled five wells over the last year because the mining
blasts caused every one of them to go dry.
Story after story was told about valley fills, which are
created when huge amounts of earth, rock and unwanted coal
and trees are dumped into valleys, causing widespread flash
When mudslides wash out roads, the county's taxpayers pay
for the cleanup. "The company don't pay to keep up 1
inch of these roads," John Roark said. "They're
getting filthy rich and don't put a dime back into the community."
Four mothers who all live on the same stretch of road told
of their children killed by overloaded, speeding coal trucks.
Ernest Brewer said his property value has plummeted since
mining started on his road. He can't even take his two kids
outside to play. "If I do, they come in covered in coal
dust," he said. "This is a matter of respect."
So many stories that it would take an entire section of the
newspaper to record them all. So much pain that the entire
paper couldn't contain it.
None of these people were there with a vendetta against the
coal industry. They were there because they wanted their stories
taken to a larger audience. They were there because they care
about their children and their grandchildren and because the
land is a part of them, too.
On hearing these people tell their stories, the authors were
all emotionally devastated.
The president of the Kentucky Coal Association said we were
reacting with an "emotional tirade."
If the good people of Kentucky could see the ravaged mountainsides
and haggard citizens we saw, they'd be emotional, too.
I don't see how anybody could witness the pain in their fellow
human beings' faces and voices without being emotionally affected
by it. I don't think there's anything wrong with getting emotional
when my fellow Eastern Kentuckians are being done wrong. Or
when I see the land I love being abused. Everyone should be
emotional about such things.
It is mind-boggling that the whole nation is talking about
Alaska being drilled for oil, yet no one cares that Appalachia
has been systematically scalped for the last 28 years. And
the speed with which
that is happening is increasing daily. As one woman at the
town meeting said, "I don't care what anybody says, the
Arctic Circle isn't a bit more worthy of respect than my mountains."
I am not against the coal industry. Coal was mined for decades
without completely devastating the entire region. My family
is a part of that coal-mining legacy.
But mountaintop removal is wrong. The worst part of all is
that mountaintop removal actually takes jobs away from the
region, since it takes many more men to deep mine a mountain
than it does to strip it and remove it.
In mountaintop removal, machines do most of the work. A document
prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states:
"Although coal production remains high ... new technology
has reduced the need for coal miners."
If mountaintop removal is banned, there might actually be
more mining jobs for the hard-working people of Kentucky.
Besides that, the proper respect might be returned to the
spirit of the land and its people.
I love Kentucky. I love the mountains. But even more than
that, I love the people who live in this place with me. Their
stories haunt me.
Silas House is the author of two novels, A Parchment of Leaves
(2002) and Clay’s Quilt (2001). A Parchment of Leaves
received the Kentucky Literary Award for Best Novel; the ForeWord
magazine Bronze Book Award; and other honors, including nominations
from the Southern Book Critics Circle Prize and the William
Saroyan International Award for Writing. Clay’s Quilt
went into its fifth printing in the fall of 2003 and has been
turned into a play and a screenplay.
A frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered,
where he reads his short fiction, Silas also has had work
published in Newsday, The Louisville Review, American Profile,
Night Train, and other publications. He has been honored with
the James Still Award for Special Achievement from the Fellowship
of Southern Writers and the Chaffin Award for Appalachian
Raised in Laurel and Leslie counties, Silas lives in Lily,
KY with his wife and two daughters. He has completed his third
novel, The Coal Tattoo, which will be published in September
Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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