The True Cost of Coal

Sitting shoulder to shoulder, 14 hips locked into place, not an inch was left in the all-wheel-drive vehicle chosen to make the climb up Kayford Mountain.  I no longer had to sketch an image of the destruction caused by mountaintop removal in my head.  Typically,  I prefer my images painted, but not in this scenario. This trip brings the last 48 hours of community testimony to light.

Mountaintop Removal is the process in which mountaintops are literally blown to pieces in order to extract coal.  Seven members of the Sustainable Living Roadshow were welcomed by members of Mountain Justice to partake in their Fall Summit in Southern West Virginia. The Coal River Mountain Watch co-hosted the event with the RAMPS (radical action for mountain people’s survival) campaign.  They offered 1-3 hour workshops for three days.  The workshops included topics such as the history of Appalachian resistance, an edible plant walk, a lesson in soft blockades, coal slurry, WV sustainable energy policy, and the list goes on.

The Appalachian region, the second most bio-diverse environment in the world, has been subject to mountaintop removal since the 1970’s. The first mountaintop removal operation was launched on Cannelton Hollow in area once called Bullpush Mountain. Forty years later, mountaintop removal operations have destroyed over 500 mountains, 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests, and neighboring communities, displaced miners, and strip-mined the cultural landscape in the Appalachian region.  And let’s not forget about the by-product of MTR, coal slurry, or coal sludge. This mining waste product containing mercury, selenium, lead, chromium, arsenic, and copper is being dumped into nearby waterways where the water runs black.  This sludge is contaminating drinking water and poisoning the people around it. Life expectancy in this region in 20 years lower than that of the national average.

“People were fighting against strip-mining 40 years ago! They are fighting the same fight today, as if the laws were never in place!” says Carol Judy, a 61 year old activist in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia. Carol is referring to the SMCRA passed in 1977. She has been fighting against the coal industry for the last 40 years. Her personal battle began when she was just 21 years old.  At that time, her husband had been working for a strip-mining company.  When Carol became aware of the health risks and environmental damage, she started speaking out against such injustices. Her husbands job threatened, if Mrs. Judy did not keep quite.  Well, Carol has ceased to remain quite about this subject even after being burned out of her home 3 times for her activism.  Carol is truly a hero in this movement.

Another hero, is Junior Walk.  A 21 year old activist. Junior and Natashia Walk attended Marsh Fork Elementary school as children.  A school surrounded by a coal preparation plant and a 2.8 million gallon coal sludge impoundment. Run your finger across the top of a locker at this school, and the dust you might expect is more resembling of black ink, a finger print that can’t as easily be washed out our minds as it can be from our hands. A symbol of the imprint that the coal industry will leave on this area forever.

After High School, Junior was offered a job as a security guard at a MTR site.  Before long he was faced with a moral dilemma. He knew he couldn’t be a part in any way, shape, or form to the destruction of the mountains. He contacted Coal River Mountain Watch and started submitting anonymous articles to their newsletters.  Junior fixed a desktop computer into his car to write the articles while still employed as a guard up until he was offered a job with CRMW.

Junior currently attends schools and energy conferences as a public speaker telling of the dangers and devastation of mountaintop removal, as well as participating in tree sits.  He wants to continue the legacy of Judy Bonds, a devoted environmental activist on Coal River Mountain. Junior noted the amount of silent supporters who had contacted him after this brave action. Many whom said they would have been out there with him if their income wasn’t reliant on coal.

Mountaintop removal isn’t only removing mountains, it’s removing lives, livelihoods, bio-diversity, memories, our rights to clean water, and our safety.   Take a look at the true cost of coal. It’s a problem that doesn’t have an easy answer, but a question that is in desperate need of many.

We sang the words of John Prine as we decended from the mountain that day. These words will continue to reverberate through all of us.

“Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken. Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County. Down by the Green River where Paradise lay. Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking. Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away. ”

“Crazy” is the word I use. – Carol Judy.

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