I am proud to stand with Eastern Kentuckians everywhere, building a positive future for our region. There’s so much potential today, right now, for Eastern Kentucky to proudly and bravely lead the way to a new energy economy in this country, with more jobs and overdue justice for the people of Appalachia. It is time for a community abused and exploited by outsiders who have never had our best interests at heart to rise and lead the U.S. into a renewable energy future.
We can, and do, have the vision to bring meaningful, generative, diverse industries that sustainably benefit the broader common welfare. The cost of premature mortality related to coal mining in Eastern Kentucky is $3.1 billion to $6.2 billion annually. Kentucky’s annual net loss related to coal mining is more than $100 million. This must stop.
Specifically, I address mountaintop removal mining (MTR). MTR is a radical form of mining that uses explosives equivalent to the atomic bomb every single week to blast tops off the oldest mountains in North America, to reach the thin seams of coal underneath. Coal companies dump the resulting millions of tons of rubble – what used to be the greatest and most ancient biodiversity in North America with genetic stock of incalculable value — into hollows and streams. The EPA admits at least 2,500 miles of Appalachian headwater streams are buried and/or irreversibly contaminated. Also, 800 mountains are simply gone. It is inconceivable that this would be permitted in the Rockies or the Sierra Nevadas.
The surrounding wildlife is decimated. Groundwater supplies are contaminated. Children color water black or orange; often, they do not know it is supposed to run clear. Communities are torn apart by the destruction, coal company propaganda and their vicious strategies that pit Appalachians against one another in the pursuit of quarterly returns in the billions.
Coal companies say MTR supports the communities of Appalachia. This is false. Communities have become poorer and on every indicator, such as health and educational attainment, outcomes worse. Counties with the most MTR mining are the poorest in the sate. These counties also poll as the unhappiest in America. More mining-related disasters are waiting: In West Virginia, a 300 billion gallon toxic sludge pond sitting 400 yards above a school is held back by an earthen dam. The dam is cracked.
Coal companies say Appalachia needs mining for jobs. Again, false. Coal mining jobs in Appalachia have decreased by 60 percent as MTR is highly mechanized. Explosives, machines such as 20 story draglines and bulldozers have replaced more than 100,000 jobs. Those working MTR jobs have little to no social protections and often work in a climate of bullying and fear. Many sites lack regulation, oversight and enforcement, as recent tragedies make sadly clear. The specious argument that Appalachia must choose between jobs and people, jobs and ancient mountains, honoring our coal mining past and having a strong future, must be retired.
Because there is hope. In the coalfields, grassroots organizing and civic empowerment is intensifying. At the federal level, the Obama administration and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson proposed a policy approach that could drastically curtail MTR. The EPA also proposed an unprecedented veto of the permit for what would be the largest mountaintop removal mine in Appalachia, the Spruce No. 1 mine. Of course, these are just proposals: A serious commitment to implementation and enforcement is needed.
Members of Congress should pass legislation that stops MTR. In 2009, Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) reintroduced the Clean Water Protection Act, which would fully overturn a 2002 loophole by the Bush administration, restoring clean water protections and ending the dumping of mining waste in America’s waters. It has 170 co-sponsors, but today it sits idle in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Our House leaders must move this bill.
On the Senate side, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced the Appalachian Restoration Act, a narrower measure. Nevertheless, it could be a step in the right direction if the senators work together to broaden it to ensure that none of the nation’s waters — in Appalachia and elsewhere — are used as dumping grounds.
And, urgently, we need our officials to demonstrate leadership in transitioning the economies of Appalachia and bringing new, clean-energy jobs to the region. We have helped power this country for more than 100 years. We can be at the forefront of cleanly powered future.
In a few weeks, my family’s genealogy in the mountains of Appalachia will be presented to me as a gift. I am keen to learn more about how my people have lived in these beloved mountains for at least eight generations. As I learn more about my past, the future of Appalachia hangs in the balance. Our nation’s leaders must do their part to stop the tragedy of mountaintop removal mining.
Ashley Judd is an activist and actor who grew up in the coal-mining region of Kentucky.