Appalachia: Triumph or Tragedy?

by on October 5th, 2015
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Appalachia is one of the most bio-diverse locations on the planet, second only to the Amazon rain forest in the number of plant, insect, and animal species it contains. It has deep roots in American history and is home to a population of people with rich traditions and a unique way of life. However, despite these facts, Appalachia is slowly being destroyed. Its land is being flattened. Its streams are being buried. Its air is being polluted. Its animals are disappearing. Its people are leaving because their culture is slowly eroded away. Only one question remains at this point: What can be done to stop this destruction of Appalachia? It is the same question being posed to the rest of the world right now, as the same things are occurring all over the planet. What Appalachia needs is a plan to stabilize itself, eliminate harmful environmental practices, and a way to recover from past destruction. In a sense, Appalachia needs a plan B to organize and illuminate the path to sustainability and recovery. While there are numerous venues to explore, a vast majority of the problems are a result of mountain-top removal and deforestation, which will be the target of this paper. If Appalachia can find a way to eliminate the sources of the troubles it faces, then it might once again regain the same beauty that it held several hundred years ago.

Deforestation is one of the largest environmental threats to Appalachia, and not only affects the region, but also the rest of the world. According to Sam Adams, coordinator for the Kentucky Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, as of March 27 of 2009 there are “an estimated 741,000 acres in Appalachia that are barren” (Alford, 2009). Most of this deforestation can be attributed to Mountain-top removal Mining or MTR for short. Strip mining and deforestation go hand-in-hand, and it’s hard to accurately separate one’s affects from another’s since they both are performed at approximately the same time. Deforestation and MTR affect Appalachia in many different ways, including flooding, negative climate change, and CO2 absorption, and many others on a long list of environmental damages.

One of the first things Appalachia needs to do is to get tough on coal mining. Its citizens and governments can no longer allow the coal mining operations to run rampant with complete disregard for the environment and the laws to protect it. The citizens need to organize and make it clear to all politicians that supporting the coal industry’s harmful practices in their hometowns is a sure-fire way to lose the election. Once helpful politicians are in office, they can be pressured to crack down on King Coal by the citizens and hopefully enforce the laws that coal companies are supposed to abide by. Even if they can’t manage to get political help from politicians they can still force the politicians as well as the rest of the world to hear their arguments. The “green movement” is becoming more and more popular in today’s society, and seems to be the “hip” thing to do nowadays. By riding the wave of current popularity, most groups fighting for the environment can address the issues they have concerns with much faster than they normally would be able to.

Perhaps the best way to start taking action is to raise awareness of the coal industry’s callous attitude toward the environment. Raising awareness is always a good thing, as evidenced when the Monongahela Forest came under attack by coal companies. Several maps and hiking guides were created and distributed to the general public, along with information about protecting the forest. This helped raise awareness and, in the end, create several wilderness areas within the forest (Protecting Wilderness, 2009). In today’s technology-based society, a great way to spread awareness is by making use of the Internet. Websites such as ilovemountains.org have begun to spring up in what are the first of hopefully many more environmentally conscious groups to take their fight to the web. Tools on ilovemountains.org have made notifying a senator or representative about your concern for an issue as easy as clicking a button. This has significantly sped up the process of letter-writing to congressmen and in my opinion is one of the best processes to emerge from the green movement since it began. One can send ten times as many letters through this website as opposed to handwriting them, and that is a conservative estimate. Cyber-activism is a growing trend with new websites and blogs popping up every day, and the green movement needs to embrace this new form of communication and use it to achieve its goals (Cyberactivism, 2009).

One of the main concerns with MTR is the amount of environmental destruction the process causes: deforestation causes massive flooding when it rains; carbon emissions skyrocket with the wasteful burning of timber on site; the air is polluted when blasting is performed; groundwater is contaminated by acid-mine drainage; and many other detrimental processes occur during the mining process. The amount of environmental concern and protection actually administered by the coal companies is laughable and the agencies that are supposed to hold the companies accountable just look the other way or even help King Coal streamline the destructive process.

The process of deforestation usually involves the burning of timber on site. This is a complete waste of useful resources, and has absolutely no benefit to the environment whatsoever. All this does is contribute to the carbon emissions already present in the atmosphere, as well as add to the carbon stores being released in the soil as the trees are toppled over without making good use of the timber. The removal of forests also causes torrential flooding when the rainy season begins, as the ground cannot absorb the water. In the words of Patrick Angel, “If the mine soils are compacted like a Wal-Mart parking lot, where you have 100 percent runoff, zero percent infiltration of rainwater, you can imagine what kind of erosion and gullying will occur. There’s no force in nature more powerful than running water” (Alford, 2009). This flooding destroys homes and lives of the people who live in the towns below these mine sites. Many of them don’t have flood insurance either, simply because flooding never would have occurred if deforestation hadn’t taken place. These same people are also having their air polluted by the blasting that takes place at MTR sites. The air quality in and around blasting areas is very poor, and the groundwater isn’t any better. Those who are unfortunate enough to use wells have often discovered that their source of clean water has been contaminated due to acid-mine drainage created during the blasting process. Another side effect worth mentioning is coal slurry and fly ash.

Slurry is the waste water used to wash the coal clean of impurities and is usually full of toxins and heavy metals. Fly ash is the after-product of burning coal, similar to slurry in its storage method and the things it contains. The waste is placed in man-made ponds with some being quite large. The danger here is that with enough rain, a dam can burst allowing a tidal wave of toxic sludge to flood neighboring communities. The most recent example is the TVA spill, which occurred in Kingston, TN in December of 2008. Over 7.5″ of rain fell and cause the dam to break, allowing 1.1 billion gallons of wet fly ash to flood the community. There had been reports that the dam had been leaking for years but they had been swept under the carpet by the Kingston Coal (TVA Coal Ash Spill, 2009). Disasters like these are only one of the things that can go wrong with MTR and one of the reasons why we need stricter laws to govern things like slurry and fly ash. If the dam had been safe in the first place, the spill might not have even occurred.

While all of these horrible things are occurring, federal agencies created to protect the environment are just standing around with their hands in their pockets. The agencies in place need to be re-staffed with men and women who will protect the environment and not destroy it. New laws need to be created and old laws need to be re-drafted to better ensure the safety of the people living in the towns near strip mines. The “buffer zone” law needs to be properly enforced and valley fills should no longer be tolerated. Pre-blast surveys of the houses in communities near blast sites need to be conducted to ensure that they are not receiving extra damage due to the explosives. Regulations that pertain to acid-mine drainage need to be established, especially those that might affect wells in communities close to the mines. At a minimum there needs to be some sort of adequate compensation for the damages caused by mining on the people that are forced to live with the consequences. Perhaps a post-mining damage assessment could be conducted and a monthly stipend awarded to those affected, which would be paid by the coal company until the damages cease. Lastly I believe the “Green Movement” needs to make its own version of the Army Corps of Engineers to properly evaluate the environmental consequences of strip mining at various sites and to also give a different opinion than the Corps may give. By having a group of engineers that favor the environment instead of favoring development, Appalachia would have another asset to use in the defense of MTR.

Another concern with MTR is the state in which the land is left after mining operations have ceased. The land is often left flat, without topsoil and barren of trees. Vegetation consists of a few non-native grasses and shrubs. This land is then deemed “reclaimed” by the coal company. So what is the excuse for leaving the land in such poor state? The coal industry claims that the land is ready for commercial use, which is ironic, considering that only 1% of land mined by MTR is structurally stable for commercial development (Coal Mining Pt. 2 – Mountaintop Removal, 2009).

Obviously, laws concerning reclamation of surface mines need to be re-examined and re-enforced. The topsoil is lost mostly to valley fills, which is the illegal dumping of topsoil and waste rock into valleys between mountains. If the laws concerning valley fills would be upheld and strictly enforced then a new law could also force the mining companies to replace the topsoil they removed from the mountains. Another law will need to be created to ensure that the land is reclaimed properly, regardless of the result of the topsoil legislation. That law needs to be one that would address the type of plants permissible to reclaim a mine site. Many strip mines are reclaimed with non-native grasses simply because nothing else will grow on the surface after the soil is exploded from the Earth. By forcing the mines to replace the topsoil, trees could be re-planted effectively and new forests could be grown. This is all assuming that the laws would be properly administered, of course.

While these are steps in the right direction and very possible to achieve, the most beneficial solution pertaining to the issue of MTR would be to eliminate MTR completely. By banning the practice strip mining, the problems created by it are eradicated and the need for other protective legislation concerning MTR is nullified. MTR preceded by deforestation is the largest form of environmental destruction currently occurring in Appalachia and it needs to be stopped. But how do the people stop it? That is up to the people to decide, but I believe there are certain measures that can be taken to make certain MTR is banned from practice in the United States.

For years men and women across the country have been fighting to stop MTR from occurring with limited success. Progress has been made through diligence and perseverance to protect the environment, but not enough to warrant the extinction of MTR. There are several reasons for this, one of which is a lack of unity concerning alternative energy. The decision to move away from coal and other fossil fuels is unanimous, but the choice of energy to replace this fossil fuel is up for debate. While some are calling for a shift to wind power, others are saying a movement to solar is less damaging to the environment and still others are saying that neither are a viable solution. While it is important to eliminate MTR, it is also important to find a middle ground and agree on an alternative source of fuel to replace coal. I believe that middle ground should be wind power, and there are several reasons for that selection.

Wind farms generally consist of several hundred large wind turbines that harness the wind energy used to propel the blades and convert it into electricity. The drawback with wind farms is that they need to be placed where wind is always blowing, which is generally the highest elevations in Appalachia. In other words, wind farms would need to go on top of the mountains. To many, this seems as bad as MTR. The goal for these people is to prevent anything from happening to the mountains, whether it’s MTR, wind, solar, or some other form of development. They just want the mountains left alone. While their position is understandable, the vast majority of these people are misinformed about the wind farms. Should a better, more Earth-friendly source of energy become available, the wind farms can be taken down and the mountain will restore itself where the turbines were located. The same cannot be said for MTR, which abuses the land to the point that hardly anything will grow. The landscape is also so drastically changed that one might not even consider them mountains anymore. In fact, the actual topographical description of an MTR site more accurately fits a plateau than it does a mountain. Given a choice between the two, most would gladly take a wind farm on top of a mountain over the destruction of the mountain.

Another issue with wind energy is the number of birds and bats the wind farms kill. Both have a tendency to attempt to fly through the wind farms only to be struck and killed by a turbine. For instance, an unusual event occurred at Backbone Mountain, WV in 2003 in which 69 birds and 452 bats were found dead between March and October of that year. Later in the summer of 2004, it was revealed that and estimated 1364 to 1980 bats were killed. In fact, locations that produce the most energy are also the most environmentally sensitive (Wind Farm Issues in West Virginia, 2009). Many have alleged that the wind farms are not a suitable replacement due to the amount of animal lives it endangers. While it may be true that wind farms due kill many birds and bats, how many other animals, as well as the flying ones, are killed or displaced by deforestation and MTR? At least with wind turbines the environment remains intact. With MTR, the environment is completely destroyed, and no life is sustainable on what is the “reclaimed land.” Measures can be taken to prevent incidents like the one at Backbone Mountain from occurring. For instance, an ultra-high frequency device could drive away animals with its high pitch while affording those that live in homes nearby the comfort of silence. Fences could also be installed to prevent other animals from coming to harm by wandering in a wind farm. The bottom line is that there are many options to make wind energy safer for animals in the local habitats, and these options need to be explored when considering wind farm use. However, with various mountain-friendly groups on both sides of the issue, it is more difficult to find an eco-friendly solution. Each alternative energy solution is going to have environmental drawbacks, as even fossil fuels have environmental drawbacks. Since wind energy is the most efficient and cleanest technology currently available, I believe wind energy should be the next step in the replacement of coal and will aid in the fight against MTR and deforestation.

Finally, one of the last things that Appalachia needs to do is preserve the beautiful land it already has by any means necessary. This could mean making a nature preserve, establishing a national forest, creating parks, making scenic river areas, or just by raising awareness. Already there have been many groups doing one or more of these things in order to preserve that wild nature of Appalachia. For instance, in the New River Controversy by Thomas Schoenbaum, several groups were able to prevent a pumped-storage dam from being built on the New River. They used litigation, organized gatherings, educated the unknowing, worked with legislators, and eventually won the battle over the course of a couple decades. This particular case illustrates all the elements for making Appalachia eco-friendly. By being determined to do the right thing no matter what the cost to themselves, they were able to save the New River. It is now a scenic river thanks to all the efforts of those involved, and will (hopefully) never be harmed so long as it remains a scenic river. One popular way of protecting local Appalachian parcels of land is by issuing land easements. For instance, if the land the coal is on (not counting mineral rights) is already included in a conservation easement, then the coal company cannot come in and buy the land from the current owner, because it is forever protected under the easement. Easements are becoming more and more popular as tax credits are being issued as incentives to create more easements to protect the land that is already pristine. By protecting the land Appalachia already has, it further prevents corporations and other industries from entering the area and taking over a small community through overbearing monetary pressure.

As stated in the beginning, there are many things Appalachia needs to address in its plan B. While I have explored just a few issues, I feel they are the most important issues at hand. The stakes are high and situation is dire. With the current development of Appalachia, forests are being destroyed, mountains are being leveled, and people are being run out of their homes and their heritage. In order to protect Appalachia, MTR and deforestation need to be eliminated. If we fail to stop MTR, it will consume Appalachia and there will only be a few pockets left of natural beauty, ready to be gobbled up by greedy industries the second they get their chance. In order to eliminate MTR and deforestation, there needs to be an increased awareness concerning the environmental issues within Appalachia. People must unify under the same common goals to achieve any success against large corporations. This includes taking a stance on wind energy. There needs to be an increased dependence on wind energy and a decrease on fossil fuels. Wind energy needs to be the replacement source of energy for fossil fuels, not a complement to it. Finally, the beautiful land of Appalachia needs to be protected by some form of litigation, legislation, or contract, such as a land easement. By ensuring that this land will not come under harm, it limits the options for commercial development in Appalachia and preserves the integrity of the land.

In closing, Appalachia needs help. It needs to be saved and preserved. The only ones who can make this possible are those who take action by writing their congressman, organizing protests, informing their neighbors, planting a tree, or just by being energy conscious when going throughout the day. If we each do our part to protect the environment, then the parts add up to become a whole. This unity is absolutely necessary to save Appalachia and to ensure that it will remain safe for years to come. We cannot allow ourselves to give up without a fight. We cannot fade quietly into the night. We must have the strength to stand up for what we believe is right and achieve the greatest victory we can possibly achieve, which is to win the battle against MTR and deforestation. It won’t be easy, but if we fail to do this; if we fail to save Appalachia, then the Appalachia we once knew may disappear forever, and that would be the greatest tragedy we could possibly experience.

References

Elkinton, D. P. (2007). Fighting to protect the Highlands: The first forty years of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. Blacksburg, VA: Pocahontas Press.

Brown, L. R., & Brown, L. R. (2008). Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to save civilization. New York: W. W. Norton.

Schoenbaum, T. J., & Ervin, S. J. (2007). The New River controversy. Contributions to southern Appalachian studies, 15. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Alford, R UN lauds effort to reforest Appalachia’s mountains. (2009, March 27). Associated Press.

Jacobs, Melanie and Tosh, Kevin (2009). Protecting wilderness

Weiner, Erin and Bradley, Jamie (2009). Cyberactivism and ilovemountains.org.

Morris, Margaret and Ramsey, Jason (2009). The Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Coal fly ash slurry spill.

Collins, Stephanie and Wallace, Anna (2009). Wind farm issues in West Virginia.

Endean, Bill and DeLauri, Amber (2009). Coal mining part 2 – mountaintop removal.


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