Mountain Top Removal Documentary and Protest Rally Coverage with Host Evan Davis

Welcome to Conscious Voices, a weekly program that seeks to promote both thought and activism on a variety of issues affecting the community and our collective future. I'm evan Davis, your host for this edition.

    Mountain Top Removal is a form of surface mining adapted especially for the rugged terrain of the coal-rich Appalachian mountains, and by all accounts it is far more destructive than either traditional underground mining or the surface mining that was used in Southern Ohio and elsewhere in the 1950'3 through the 1980's. If you visit areas in Sounthern Ohio that were surface mined 20 or 30 years ago, for instance you will see emerging second-growth forests and, in some cases even some commercial agriculture. The quality of the water in or near the formerly surface-mined areas has mostly returned to its previous state before the mining took place. That is because in relatively flat areas although the soil is disturbed and the original vegetation is destroyed the substrate rock structures remain relatively stable and the surface material, with its nutrients and minerals is simply shifted rather than removed. The toxic run-off from surface mining, often blamed for killing aquatic life in near by streams gradually abates as plants begin to re-colonze the altered landscape. None of that is true of Mountain Top Removal. Mining companies first clear-cut all the trees on the mine site and burn them. They use millions of tons of explosives every year especially in West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky to blast away the tops of mountains, sometimes reducing their altitude by as much as 800 feet, to get at the coal seams that lie underneath. Huge machines known as drag lines excavate the coal and the rubble, which the mine operators term "over-burden"  which is the
dumped in to what are euphemistically called "valley fills", a term that refers to the adjacent hollows on the sides of the mountain that form the headwaters of the mountain streams. According to the conservation group, the West Vrginia Highlands Conservancy Mountain Top Removal has ruined more than 2,000 miles of Appalchian streams  to date , as the run-off from the so-called Valley Fills includes heavy metals such as Mercury,  Arseninc, and Selenium which are abundant in the rocks deep within the mountain. These continue to leach out when the rocks are exposed, not only from the rubble, but from the barren surfaces left behind as well.
    To see pictures of what thus looks like you can visit any number of web sites like the Ohio Valley Environmental Council's, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy's, Mountain Justice, the Sierra Club's, etcetera where numerous areal photographs show the extent of the destruction. You can also see the valley fills and another phenomenon, the impoundment dams. Once the coal is extracted it needs to be processed to prepare it for market. This is accomplished using copious amounts of water and a series of chemical baths. Many of the chemicals used are toxic, as are the by-products of the washing. The resulting waste, black in color, has a sludge-like consistency and there's a lot of it. The Coal operators obtain permits from the Environmental Protection Agency, of all places, to store, or "impound" the toxic sludge in massive ponds formed behind earthen dams which they construct in the stream beds themselves. Sometimes these impoundment dams fail. That's what happened on October 11 in 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky where some 300 Million gallons of sludge escaped in to an underground mine and washed in to a series of streams that flow in to the Tug River, a tributary to the Ohio River. Residents in nearby towns awoke to find sludge as deep as two feet covering their properties and streets, and the water supply for nearly 30,000 residents was ruined. Some Coal burning power plants also use earthen dam impoundment systems and in 2008 an even bigger sludge spill occurred in Roane County, Tennessee spilling more than 1 Billion gallons in to two rivers. That disaster, caused by an outright failure of the retaining dam there was estimated to be nearly 100 times greater in magnitude than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
    Back in West Virginia there's an impoundment dam near the towns of Sylvester  and Whitesville that sits above the Marsh Fork elementary school. Numerous protests have been held calling for the removal of the impoundment, or to demand that the governor sexcure funding for the construction of a new elementary school elsewhere, but so far to no avail - and that dam does leak. I have on my desk a jar of blackened water collected from the Marsh Fork creek next to the school after one leaking incident in which an un-determined amount of sludge escaped, causing a fsh-kill in several miles of the creek. The conservation group Coal River Mountain Watch is located near by in Whitesville. Laurella Scarbro is on staff there. She, like many of the activists opposed to Mountain Top Removal  grew up in the area - in her case on Coal River Mountain itself. Her father was a coal miner as was her husband who died of Black Lung disease, a crippling, often fatal respiratory ailment associated with exposure to coal dust.

      <clip from Laurella Scarbro interview>
     <musical bridge >

    Jobs and renewable energy are two themes that are woven throughout the discussions over Mountain Top Removal, and it's not just the miners and coal field residents whose ways of life and livelihoods hang in the balance. Many thousands of people in West Virginia depend on employment that is indirectly related to coal. Surface miners and their associates often dismiss the data and arguments made by opponents of Mountain Top Removal claiming, instead that its environmental impacts are minimal and that the alternatives such as solar, geo-thermal and wind energy are impractical. I spoke with James Milan who heads an organization of  coal vendors,  primarily businesses involved with the processing and transportation of coal.

      <clip from Milan interview>
      <musical Bridge; Kathy Mattea - Dark as a Dungeon>

     Milam was part of a counter-protest of surface miners and their allies in response to a rally against Mountain Top Removal organized by a coalition of environmental and civic groups recently in the parking lot of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The two protests were separated by police barricades and a distance of a few hundred feet, owing to the fact that previous protests against Mountain Top Removal have been tarnished by violent altercations as surface miners and the wives of surface miners have, on occasion physically harassed or assaulted protesters. Indeed the atmosphere at this rally was quite tense and grew more so as the the surface miners jeered the speakers across the way, admonishing them to go home and accusing them of being "outsiders". One f the speakers was Maria Gunnoe, a life long resident of the area whose family home was nearly washed away in a series of floods she says were caused by unusual watershed patterns caused by a mountain top removal project up-stream from her property. She began to speak out several years ago and soon she began receiving anonymous death threats. At one point anonymous posters appeared on walls and telephone polls in towns near her home accusing her of being a terrorist. "Wanted", they read; "dead or alive".

     Violent divisions among miners in West Virginia are nothing new. Ever since the early 1800's when mining companies first gained a foothold in Appalachia and the rapid growth of industry in the Northern states created the coal boom that came to define the region's economy miners have had to struggle for decent wages and working conditions. In the late 1800's through the 1960's Appalachian miners experienced some of the worst working conditions, longest hours, and lowest wages of any American workers, while  coal, gas and oil companies saw some of the highest profits of any industries. Railroads were built to ferry coal  from the mountains to major industrial centers  and steel mills in Ohio and Pennsylvania relied on coal shipped on barges up the Ohio River and its major tributaries. The work in the mines and related industries took a heavy toll in terms of the lives and health of the workers even before the impact of pollution on he surrounding communities began to be recognized as a crisis. Organizing unions became a matter of necessity and the miners unions in West Virginia and Colorado were among the most militant. Strikes often turned bloody and there were many pitched battles between union and non-union miners who were always  reinforced by armed guards hired by the coal companies, and by the local police. On several occasions even the U.S. military was called in to drive Union miners from their positions. During the infamous Battle of Blair Mountain, in the Summer of 1921 even the air force was called in, marking one of the only times the U.S. U. S air force has been used, so far, to attack U.S. civilians.Nearly 150 people, mostly miners, were killed in the week-long skirmish. Blair mountain is now a site of historical significance as forensic archeologists are still sifting through evidence such as bullets and spent shell casings scattered on the mountain side to map out a precise account of the battle. Now a Mountain Top Removal contract threatens to destroy Blair Mountain itself. Ironically it is the archeological remnants of the battle of Blair Mountain that may be all that is standing in the way of the mountain's destruction as efforts are underway to have Blair Mountain declared a national historic site.
      Today the battle lines are largely the same. Underground miners, their families, descendants, neighbors and residents of the communities they built over generations are facing off against the mostly non-union surface miners, who are closely allied with the same coal companies that have dominated the Appalachian economy for the last two centuries. As always, the threat of lay offs, outsourcing and company flight add fuel to the fire, and, as ever, the fates of entire communities hang in the balance as does the survival of one of the world's most diverse ecosystems. Ultimately, however, the future of appalachia  will not be determined by the people who live there, nor even by the coal companies and their allies in the legislature. Demand for coal is beginning to decline nationally even as the demand for energy world wide is increasing. Coal-fired power plants, arguably the most polluting form of energy production, are becoming increasingly unpopular and expensive to build. Recently plans were scrapped for three new coal-fired power plants, including one in Southern Ohio near the West Virginia border. Ohio remains dependent on Coal for up to 90% of its energy and although the state's governor, Democrat Ted Strickland has come under much criticism from environmentalists for promoting coal and nuclear power and not doing as much as other states to promote renewable energy such as Solar and Wind, the private sector is beginning to respond to growing public demand for cleaner energy. New solar and wind facilities are springing up in Texas, Arizona, California, Pennsylvania and even Ohio as a growing number of investors becomes convinced of its viability. However, despite the trend away from Coal and toward renewable energy sources the rate of destruction in Appalachia resulting from Mountain Top Removal, as well as the rate of job losses as the era of King Coal draws to a close are out-pacing the advances made toward a sustainable energy infrastructure.
     We'll spend the rest of the hour with environmental defense attorney Robert F Kennedy Junior, the keynote speaker from the rally I referred to in this report. Before we hear a portion of his speech, however, I want to add that I recorded the interview with James Milam at the beginning of the event, and he was perfectly civil and glad to speak with me. After the rally I ventured again to the Surface Miners side of the barricades to hear more of their perspectives. That time, however, I was not greeted so cordially. I found one miner who was willing to speak with me but the interview was quickly interrupted as a group of angry miners advanced toward me shouting and shoving and threatening physical violence. I found that unfortunate because, as you heard in the interview with Laurella Scarbro, and as other Mountain Justice activists said in their speeches or interviews that same day, the concerns of the Surface Miners are, in some ways synonymous with those of the people opposing mountain top removal, and their narrative is an important component of the over-all story.
      Here, then is Robert F. Kennedy Junior. The loud sounds you will hear in the background punctuating his speech are from a convoy of empty coal trucks passing back and forth on the nearby boulevard attempting to disrupt the rally.

That was Robert F. Kennedy Junior speaking over the din of passing coal trucks at a rally against mountain top removal held on December 7 in Charleston West Virginia.
<musical bridge - Phil Ochs - Hills of West Virginia>

This is Conscious Voices, and I'm Evan Davis,  your host and producer for. If you have any questions or comments about what you've just heard please e-mail us at Conscious voices is a production of Pacifica Radio affiliated WCRS, listener supported non-commercial community radio in Columbus, Ohio, a broadcast service of Simply Living. This program is made possible in part with support from the Puffin Foundation. A special shout out and welcome to our listeners also in Grand Rapids, Michigan on WPRR radio at 1680 am.  I hope you'll tune in again next week to Conscious Voices and that you'll stay tuned in the mean time for other fine programs on this community radio station.