community-based, non-corporate, participatory media
Appalachia Apocalypse: The human face of Mountain Justice Summer
by Bo Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2005 at 10:16 AM
There is a not only a dreadful ecological toll to Mountain Range Removal--but it has a human face as well. This is a call to action. The picture is of Jeremy Davidson, 3, was killed when a boulder was dislodged by a bulldozer and came crashing through his bedroom from a Mountain Top Removal site. He was crushed in his sleep. The picture was taken by Michael Williamson.
A Call for Action
The Human Face of Mountain Top Removal
The coal industry portrays opponents of mountain range removal/mountaintop removal (MRR/MTR) as extremists who care more about birds, bats, and bullfrogs than they do about people. Again, the industry lies. Appalachian PEOPLE—individuals, families, communities, and an entire culture—suffer the coal barons’ abuses in the U.S.’s mad lust for cheap, dirty fossil fuel. The industry and the media portray Appalachians as ignorant, backward, inbred hillbillies completely undeserving of the mountains in which they live. By dehumanizing the mountain residents, the industry uses the same tactic used by all colonial powers to justify robbing, displacing, or massacring the natives.
The industry is presently committing genocide in Appalachia, destroying a people more ancient than the nation, and hiding it behind the ecocide that so many Americans have come to accept as the cost of doing business. Our struggle with the coal barons has been ongoing since the late 1800’s. They have murdered our people, burned our homes, robbed our children’s future, and denied our basic human rights, while the U.S. government has turned a blind eye. Now it has come to this: mountain top removal threatens to end our existence forever, the finishing touch to culture genocide.
Most Americans have never heard the words “mountain top removal.” It’s the dirty little secret that our government wants to keep hidden from the eyes of America and the world. Human rights violations in America do exist, and there is no better example of those violations than life in the coalfields of Appalachia.
What is mountain top removal? It starts with the removal of all vegetation. Trees are bulldozed over and pushed into the valleys to be burned. Huge access roads are then built in order to bring in mammoth earth moving equipment. This alone requires much blasting. Once the equipment is in place, the horror and rape begins. Holes are drilled in the ground, and then packed with high explosives. Part of the mountain is then blown away. Next come the giant earth movers (GEM) that dump that which is not coal (overburden) into nearby valleys, burying mountain streams with pulverized rock, iron, copper, lead, chromium, mercury, and many other heavy metals that were once buried deep in the earth. Next, the coal is removed and sent down the mountain by beltline. The blasting and raping continue until all seams of coal are extracted, sometimes taking off 900 feet or more of the mountain, and creating huge valley fills above our homes. What used to be rich topsoil has now been either incinerated or buried deep beneath rubbles of blasted rock. The ecosystem of that mountain is now destroyed forever. Meantime, the coal that has been extracted has to be cleaned at the preparation plant before shipping. The coal now goes into a gigantic chemical treated cleaning tank. This process removes impurities including mercury, arsenic, and many other toxins. The sludge generated from this process settles in the bottom of the tank and then is pumped back up the mountain into huge toxic sludge lakes confined by an earthen dam. The cleaned coal is then loaded into train cars or coal trucks and sprayed with a chemical binding agent in order to keep the coal dust down on the way to market.
Obviously, the environmental impact to plants, trees, and the wildlife is enormous. But what about the impact on the human species? Pure and simple, people living in the coalfields live in a state of terror. Since there is neither vegetation nor topsoil on the mountain to absorb the rainfall, we live in fear when it rains. During a rainstorm, our children go to bed fully clothed, plotting escape routes in case we have to flee in the middle of the night. We constantly worry that our kids may be killed by a falling rock on the way to or from school, or buried in toxic sludge while they sit at their school desk. Or as in the case of three-year-old Jeremy Davidson of Appalachia, Virginia, murdered by an outlaw coal company that dislodged a six hundred pound rock and sent it hurtling down the mountain and through his house at 2:30 in the morning as he slept in his bed. The company was fined a paltry $15,000 and has the audacity to appeal the fine. This was the most recent fatality in King Coal’s war on the Appalachian people. Add this to the deaths from flooding, coal truck accidents, and the 1972 slaughter of 127 Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, residents, and you begin to get a taste of the industry’s complete disregard for human life and human rights.
We have had people swept away in mudslides and water tides pouring down from mountain top removal sites, yet the coal companies have the audacity to calls these things, “an act of God.” In October of 2000, a sludge dam in Inez, KY failed, spilling 310 million gallons of toxic sludge into Tug Fork of The Big Sandy River, destroying all aquatic life, and poisoned ground water and soil for 110 miles downstream. These earthen dams will fail again. On the Coal River in southern West Virginia, there are four such dams pointed directly at communities and schools. All of them hold over two billion gallons of toxic sludge. One of them, known as the Brushy Fork impoundment is the largest sludge dam in the United States, currently containing 7 billion gallons of sludge and scheduled to grow to over 9 billion gallons. If it fails, all life will most likely be lost for 40 miles downstream. A smaller dam caused the Buffalo Creek disaster, killing mostly women and children.
Three million pounds of explosives per day are used in West Virginia alone (leading the nation), with Kentucky right behind and Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee each getting a significant beating (source: Institute of Makers of Explosives/U.S. Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook). The total explosive force used in West Virginia EACH WEEK is close to that used on Hiroshima. No ecosystem or culture can long survive such a pounding. Ongoing blasting, speeding and overweight coal trucks, coal dust, dangerous facilities placed in immediate proximity to schools, well depletion and contamination, destruction of cemeteries, polluted rivers and air, flooding, and threats from coal thugs make life in the coalfields unbearable for many.
Many others remain, hoping for better days ahead or just too stubborn to leave the land that has been in their families for eight or nine generations. But the industry convinces the masses that Appalachia must be leveled in order to provide employment and national security. Yet as coal production has risen, coal employment has dropped nearly 75% in the last 20 years or so in West Virginia, due in large part to MRR (source: WV Coal Association). MRR employs a handful of blasters and heavy equipment operators compared to the numbers needed for underground mining. The ongoing exodus from West Virginia has resulted in closing schools, loss of congressional representation, and loss of hope for many.
A culture that allows these abuses will allow any abuse. Our Appalachian politicians ignore the pleas of their constituents while their pockets are lined with coal money. Our teachers, small business operators, and press are intimidated into silence. Our nation, which we have fought and died for, wastes energy by the megaton. Meanwhile, one in six U.S. women of childbearing age has unsafe levels of mercury in her system, mainly due to pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The people of Appalachia need your help. Our homeland is being turned into a sacrifice zone for cheap electricity. Our rights have been taken away. Explosives and machines have replaced our coal miners, jobs. We are being forced off our land and our mountain communities are being destroyed. Who is next? Is our country destined to become a third world resource economy for the sake of corporate profits? To quote Thomas Paine, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my time, so that my children may live in peace.”
We call on those who care about human rights and basic human dignity. YOU can make a difference; YOU are the one you have been waiting for.
Mountain Justice Summer is a direct call to action for the people to stand up to the attempt at destruction of a people and a cultural heritage i.e., mountain range removal. We must have your help to fight. Others ask for your money. We need you. With a little help we can break the back of this massive destruction that lays waste to our Appalachia communities. We are asking for volunteers to dedicate a summer to our efforts. We see our call to action as an emergency plea, in desperate circumstances -- to rachet up the resistance to the atrocity of Mountain Range Removal before it's too late.
Add yourself to our newsletter list for MJS at
If you can volunteer email
mountainjusticesummer (at) hushmail.com
annebonnylives (at) yahoo.com
Or call 865-633-8483
Mountain Justice Summer
2131 Riverside Drive
Or goto our website (still in progress) at mountainjusticesummer.org
We need more safe houses and recruiting folks on the East Coast. Contact us and we will get you information. Call us and we will put you on our email list. But make contact. Help us fight. One person must make a difference.
For the Mountains
I resided in WV for about a year and a half, and I have never seen a people or place so touched by the rape of the land as I did when I lived there.
Excellent article, Bo.
Felt so hopeless looking for answers to my quteisons...until now.