Mountain Top Coal Removal Mining

I am very proud to be an Kentuckian. Of the many things my Creator has seen fit for me to have accomplished, there is a simple fact that brings me the most honor and the greatest sense of self, and that is that I am an Eastern Kentuckian – a proud hillbilly who traces my family back at least 8 generations in our beloved mountains – Martin County, Lawrence County and eventually Boyd County. In 8 weeks, I’ll know even more about my mountain people, their original homes, holdings, and habits. My genealogy is being done and the research shall be presented to me as a gift. My life is a well traveled one, but this journey, back through my family history in the Appalachian mountains, is the richest, and the sweetest. A few tantalizing details have slipped out; for example, my 5 x great grandfather, a Pack, in his will bequeathed 247 acres, 2 copper stills, and set aside an acre of land for a meeting house in which all denominations could worship. I can hardly wait to learn more.

There is no better home than Kentucky. We have a deeply ingrained, almost mystical, sense of place – a sense of belonging that defines us. Although I currently make my home in rural middle TN, KY calls to me. It is my Avalaon. A few examples: as a teenager, I took a friend to see my great aunt Pauline’s farm. She passed away when I was in the 4th grade. Nevertheless, although I had not been in many years, and had not every driven there myself, I navigated myself to her steading on Little Cat Creek without making a single wrong turn. Equally, I college, I drove from Lexington to Big Hill in Morrill, and, again, although I had not been there since grade 2, I drove straight to the Hill without putting a wheel wrong. If you need more evidence: after doing a fly over of legal and illegal mountain top removal coal mining sites in Pike County, I drove to Black Log Hollow, where my paternal grand mommy was raised. I had never been there before. I drove straight to my great grandmother’s home. Pulling onto Black Log, something ineffable, without words and deeper than memory, from a place so primal is transcends thought and conscious action, I stopped at the foot of a long drive. Although I had never seen it, I recognized it. I was unsurprised, when I looked, that the mail box said, “Dalton.” My grandmommie’s maiden name. Yes, folks to whom I am kin, live there yet. I called on the residents, and like a funny cliche, the old woman accused me of being the law or a tax collector. The only thing missing was a rifle acrost her lap.

I don’t see that house so much as I feel it, right here.

But the ache I feel for my mountain home is now more than a bittersweet nostalgia accrued through inimitable generations of belonging. There is a searing tear, a raging grief, and gaping wound in the fabric of my life and in the lives of all Appallachians. And gets bigger with every Appalachian mountain that is blown up, every hollow that is filled, every stream that is buried, ever wild thing is wantonly killed, every ecosystem that is diminished, every job that is lost to mechanization,every family is pitted one against another, by the state sanctioned, federal government supported, coal industry operated rape of Appalachia. Mountain top removal coal mining.

The Appalachian mountains are the oldest mountain range in North America. They are, indeed, so old, geologists poetically, I think, call their age, “Deep Time.” They may well be the oldest mountains in the world. I am here to tell you: mountain top removal coal mining simply would not happen in any other mountains in the US. It is inconceivable the Smokies would be blasted, the Rockies razed, the Sierra Nevadas flattened, bombs the equivalent to Hiroshima being detonated weekly for years anywhere in US except here. The fact the Appalachians are the Appalachians, makes this environmental genocide possible, and permissible. And, by the end of our time together, I hope you will commit your journalistic integrity to helping stop MTR immediately.

Our mountains re-seeded the whole of North America after the last age. I smile when I remember that. What an act of biological generosity! The genetic stock of our mixed mesophytic forests, in part because they were an unglaciated refuge for many species, exceeds any value that can be conceived of or articulated by our human mind. Ancient, life giving, a perfectly complete and closed loop of life and economy, the preciousness of these mountains is a natural endowment that should be treated as sacred.

Instead, they are being blasted to smithereens.

Coal lies in those hills, as the locals call them, but y’all knew that. There are 3 stories I am telling today, really: the ancient one, a tiny bit of the Appalachian’s genealogy; an old one, about how the current exploitation and abuse was set up in the late 19th century and perpetuated in the 20th, and how technology is being used right now to permanently and irreversibly obliterate a mountain range, a culture, and a people.

The Broad Form Deed: One of the most diabolical, abusive legal documents ever created, as stunningly arrogant and entitled as the White man “buying” from Native Americans vast tracks of land for a quarter. In this next section, I will be quoting from : Henry Caudill, Chad Montrie, Ron Eller, Silas House, Jason Howard, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth archives:

In 1887, John C.C. Mayo rode up in this hills with silver dollars sewn into his clothes, taking his wife in order to make a good impression. He thus bought the first mineral rights, using a broad form, which he popularized across mountains that came to called The Coal Fields. The methodology of the swindling and manipulation is documented:  ”With every convincing appearance of complete sincerity the coal buyer would spend hours admiring the mountaineer’s horse…while compliments were dropped on every phase of his host’s accomplishments. He marveled at the ample contents of the mountaineer’s smokehouse and savored the rich flavor of the good woman’s apple butter… After such a visit he and “the man of the house” would get down to business and before long the deed or option was signed with the uncertain signatures of the mountaineers and his wife.” And what exactly did those broad forms say? I will read to you from 3 I happen to have on hand. Earlier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, agents for land companies had swept through the region buying up mineral rights, sometimes for as little as fifty cents per acre, separating the use of the surface (and tax liability) from the natural resources that might be below. Initially, the deeds separated mineral rights from ownership of surface land. However, in the 1940′s, courts began interpreting broad form deeds to mean the surface owner also sold, along with the minerals, the right to extract them through whatever means the mineral rights owner chose. Written in finely printed “legalese,” the broad form deeds signed over the rights to “dump, store, and leave upon said land any and all muck, bone shale, water, or other refuse,” to use and pollute water courses in any manner, and to do anything “necessary and convenient” to extract subsurface minerals. These clauses eventually caused much regret on the part of the sellers’ progeny when Kentucky courts interpreted them in favor of the coal companies. Broad form deeds…effectively transferred to the land company all of the mineral wealth and the right to remove it by whatever means necessary, leaving the original owners and their descendants the semblance of landownership and the responsibility for paying the taxes. With the advent of surface mining in the 1950s, these old deeds took on new meaning as the mining companies sought access to their mineral property without regard to the rights of the surface owners. Roads were cut across pastures, forests devastated, fields ruined, and water supplies polluted to get at the coal, and the state courts upheld the right of the miners to remove the coal “by any means convenient or necessary.”  Increasingly, farm families found that their meager hopes for subsistence on it were destroyed. Many believed that they had no recourse but to abandon the farmstead to the mining company and to join the growing numbers of landless migrants and unemployed workers that roamed the region or left the mountain entirely. It was not until 1987, in a split decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court, this interpretation of broad form deeds was finally struck down.  In November of 1988, by a margin of 4-1, Kentuckians voted in favor of the Homestead Amendment, which restricted strip-mining by the mineral rights’ owner without the consent of the landowner.  Five years later, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld its constitutionality. 1988.

I used the word rape earlier. At the time this law that allowed coal companies to rape the land without consent, spousal rape was still legal in Kentucky. I remember learning that one morning in College, drinking my coffee in the kitchen at the Kappa house, and the shock and shame I felt. If I were married, it would be legal for my husband to rape. Kentucky’s gender laws have come a long way; Governor Beshear in fact just signed into a law a progressive policy requiring that men who beat women and against whom an order of protection has been taken out, be monitored with GPS. I salute the KY State Legislature and Governor Beshear for passing and enacting this law. Kentucky’s environmental laws, monitoring, evaluation, and enforcement need to move a pace.

The Surface Mining and Reclamation Act passed in 1977 during the Carter Administration was inadequate in scope at the time. Coal mining techniques outdistanced regulation immediately, not to mention the appalling lack of oversight, reporting, and enforcement. As shocking as strip mining was then, mountain top removal is wrap speed, over drive, mani strip mining on steriods.

First, a permit is applied for.

It is rubber stamped; “creeping permititis.”

Or, it is not applied for; many coal companies find it more convenient – remember that word – to mine without any permits, then self report. The state will show them leniency for self reporting, assessing a relative small fee.

Access roads are made.

The timer is not harvested.

The majestic old growth, hard wood forest is razed without regard for its value, economic or environmental.

Next, explosives are trucked in, explosive so volatile they must be carried on separate vehicle. Hills are drilled into the rock of the mountain, and every day in KY and WVA, around the clock, 2,500 tons of explosives are detonated, blasts 100 times great than the OK City bombing bring the mountains down.

What used to be home to human, flora, and fauna, and a potential economic boom for a classically exploited and distress area, has become, in the coal companies language, “over burden.”

Using shovels the size of buildings, the essential ingredients of the Deep Time mountains is pushed into the lauded and mythical hollows of Appalachia, indiscriminately burying all the is produced and lives there: water shed, perennial and permanent streams, all plant and wild life.

Using a drag line 20 stories high, the thing ribbons of coal, like thing layers of chocolate on a cake, are scooped out.

In some cases, the site, once the coal is taken, is abandoned. The coal company, often a shell set up for a job or two, defaults on the bond. In other cases, the company decided to make the site a “model example” of their responsibility. They “return to approximate counter” (of course, the word “approximate” makes it a farce; the word was a government concession to powerful coal interests) the shape of the mountain, they plant non native, fast growing grasses, and then with their incessant propaganda, laud the site as an example of how good for Appalachia MTR is. Why, on one, they even built a prison. Guess what? The foundation subsided. Locals call it “sink sink.” On another, they built a golf course! I am not keen on reinforcing stereotype about my own people, but I don’t know a lot of Hillbillies who golf.

And, so, in less than one year, Massey, TECO, Argus, Arch, Consol, Patriot, International Coal Group bring down ineffable mountains of profound past and infinite future. And, Americans take even less than 1 year, to burn up the coal for which it was all down.

Shame on us.

This practice is a stain on the conscience of America.

There are many myths promulgated by the coal companies, and those they keep dependent on them through the mono economy they have created and maintained. The Charleston WVA paper captured one such enduring myth well in an Op Ed last week. Talking about a public EPA hearing at which a permit for what would be largest ever MTR site in WVA as being discussed, a man from Pike County, KY, who had traveled all that way to plead his case said, “Please approve this permit. This is all we know.”

What an indictment, the paper wrote. What a penetrating condemnation of all the leaders in his life, from home and school, to county commissions, up to legislators, governors, presidents and anyone else who meets and greets and congratulates themselves on being “for jobs.”

No matter what you think the EPA should do regarding Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, projections for coal employment in the future are the same: down. Coal mining will never again employ 100,000 West Virginians, as it once did.

I hope to have the chance to address some of other ridiculous yet persistent myths with you during the question and answer portion of our time together.

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