Tuesday 6 January 2009


In the early 1970s, country singer John Prine wrote one of my favourite songs, "Paradise," about a boyhood in the Appalachian Mountains -- and, years later, finding that the mountains had been destroyed.

It wasn't fiction. The practice has never received much media attention in the last four decades, but coal companies have destroyed some of oldest mountains in the world in one of America's two great ranges. I don't mean they stripped the trees off the mountain slopes. I mean some of the mountains themselves are now gone and the land flat.

For a hundred years, companies mined coal by sending men down dangerous shafts, resulting in labour battles so fierce they involved periodic Wild-West gunfights. In the 1970s they discovered a quicker way – literally blasting away mountains and, with “the world’s largest shovel,” as Prine's song put it, pushing the rubble into the once-forested valleys.

According to Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us, more than 1,000 miles of mountain streams -- the distance from New York to Chicago and Ireland to Africa -- have now been buried under the rubble, and will be deeply contaminated by the time they bubble up again.

You would think one of America’s two great mountain ranges would be somewhat protected, or that there would be some fuss about destroying so many of them, but this act – one of the most extreme ever committed by our species – rarely receives any media attention.

Late last year, Tennessee builder Howard Switzer wrote in a prophetic letter to the Knoxville newspaper, “[m]any might think this is the price we must pay to keep lights on in the U.S., but actually the coal from under those mountain tops is going mostly to China."

“That’s right, we are allowing the destruction of our mountains so that China can pollute its air,” said the longtime conservationist, who specializes in building homes out of straw bales.

Switzer ran for governor of Tennessee last election as a third-party candidate, but was unable to generate much attention to this issue. Then this happened:

The sludge that ripped eight homes off their foundations was referred to as ash, but it is not the wood ash that is good for the soil when dug in. It is the chemical remains of mining, filled with lead, arsenic and thallium – extremely poisonous elements banned from most uses. You can remember them by the murder mystery in which they were used as a poison (Thallium: Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. Arsenic: Arsenic and Old Lace).

Initial reports -- which, judging from Internet sites, seemed to receive scant coverage in America -- stated that 1.8 million cubic yards of this Oobleck flooded over what used to be forest. The news turned out to be wrong – it was three times that. A billion gallons. The largest such disaster in U.S. history. According to the journalists reaching for visual aids, that is enough ash to fill 450,000 dump trucks. So, a lot.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, “[t]he sludge has flowed into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides drinking water to millions of people downstream in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.” Thankfully, poison levels have not gone very high for people downstream, and I wonder how many unsung heroes at the filtration plant really deserve a vacation at this point.

I found two passages particularly revealing. First, according to the Associated Press: “This is not the first time that the coal ash containment ponds have breached at the Kingston Fossil plant. There have been two in recent years, one in 2003 and in 2006. Danny Collins, the manager of the Rockwood Municipal Airport, said that he'd noticed a green ooze coming from the retention wall of the waste pond for the last year and a half.”

And this one from the Louisville Courier: “The spill has reignited the national debate over whether federal standards should be established to store and dispose of the waste left from burning coal.” At present, there are no federal rules for storing and disposing this toxic waste.

After the event Switzer wrote another letter to list-serves far and wide, saying that: “Coal kills … It is estimated that over 64 million Americans breathe air that has so much particle pollution that it puts their health at risk ... Besides the microscopic particles linked to asthma and heart disease there are other health affects as well, not to mention the forest killing acid rain. Coal-fired power plants are the largest single man-made source of mercury pollution in the U.S., the largest contributor of hazardous air pollutants overall ... Coal kills far more people than terrorism."

Switzer didn’t note the big problem with coal – there is enough of it to tip the climate, rapidly spreading deserts across the world. Coal is dangerous not only because there is so much more of it, but because it is much less efficient than oil or gas, so much more of it must be mined and burned to release the same amount of energy. As oil grows scarce, nations will be tempted to turn to coal, which would stretch our fossil-fuel credit a little longer at a much higher interest rate.

How can I write about this on the Internet, when the electricity you and I are using may have come from coal? Because we can get electricity from many sources, and turning vast areas of the Earth into desert is not necessary to post on the Internet. Because none of us ever got to vote where our power comes from --- most of us are never told, and if we knew, would vote differently. Because we must talk to each other as well, or nothing will happen.

Because I, and many other people, are cutting our usage and realizing how much can go -- and by trimming the waste now, we can make sure we can blog with little impact, just as by trimming the hundreds of kilos of junk mail, we can make sure there are enough trees left to enjoy a good book.
Top photo: Appalachian stream, public domain. Bottom photo: Courtesy of Associated Press.


Sara said...

It's amazing how little coverage this has received. I linked your article to my facebook.

Unknown said...

Excellent post. I regret that not only is there scant attention paid to this unseemly (unseamly?) aspect of coal, and far too little outrage, but there are powerful defenders of the practice. Don Blankenship of Massey Energy recently illustrated that not just coal, but the minds of those who exploit it are dirty. Another of our disasterous President Shrub's midnight rules actually makes this warped terradeforming easier to do.

There's a good post on how all of this is destroying not just the land, but a way of life.

I didn't know much of this coal went to China. Do you have a source for that? Estimates of the amount of coal remaining may be much smaller than thought, so perhaps the waste of more fossil energy to move this stuff halfway around the world should not come as too great a surprise. Peak resources will inevitably lead to hoarding by countries seeking longer term strategic advantage, and "coals to Newcastle" by dirtbags like Blankenship who appear to care only for their immediate material gratification.

Lynnet said...

Actually here in Colorado, we DO get to vote on where our power comes from, at least a little bit. We can pay a little more and support kilowatt-hours that are produced by wind power. But in general, you are right. And the damage from coal mining in the Appalachians is horrifying. Pure unbridled greed.

corningcyclist said...

From the air, it looks like strip-mining and mountaintop removal have left the Appalachians with a bad case of acne. It makes me want to turn all the lights off. And support the local wind farm initiatives here in upstate NY. Which I do. Better to keep the mountain, but with wind turbines, rather than tear the whole thing apart!