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Mountaintop Removal Mining

Monday, June 2, 2008

A mountain that's been mined from below still looks and acts like a mountain. A mountain that's been removed is never a mountain again.

Gentle readers, I've been absorbed lately by something that is happening in West Virginia, and all over Appalachia. Over the 2 1/2 years I've been blogging, I've tried to keep it light and entertaining. But keeping a blog is like living a life--it gets hairy sometimes, and to try to pretend otherwise, to keep the shiny happy veneer polished, feels like hypocrisy to me. I hope you'll stay with me for the next few posts.

Going to the New River Birding and Nature Festival in Fayetteville, WV, always feels like coming home to us. For one thing, the Zickefooses find their center of abundance around Buckhannon, WV. For another, Bill, Phoebe, Liam, Chet and I have built good friendships with the festival organizers over the six years we've been working at the festival, and we believe in their mission. They've raised a potload of money over the years for nature education in local schools. I can't overestimate the importance of bringing the next generations along with a better understanding and appreciation of the natural resources all around them.

Educating her children, starting an uprising from within, is going to be the only way to save West Virginia from the gigantic coal companies who are blowing her mountains up, dumping the tailings in streams, and stripping the land of its coal. For if West Virginians can't see the value of leaving their landscape intact and functioning; if a mountain is worth something to them only when it's torn down and turned inside out, then there will be nothing to stop Big Coal, the Army Corps of Engineers, and West Virginia's own "Department of Environmental Protection" from linking arms to tear the last mountain down. West Virginia's DEP routinely grants variances for coal companies wishing to remove mountaintops, looks the other way when streams are buried and valleys are filled with the toxin-loaded tailings, and even brings its own sham, placeholding lawsuits against coal companies for the sole purpose of pre-empting legitimate lawsuits bearing real complaints and evidence of horrendous environmental devastation. This beautiful state is being torn up from inside by the cancer of greed, the collusion and complicity of its own "environmental protection" department, and the more insidious disease of apathy, the feeling of powerlessness against such titanic forces.

Between 1992 and 2002, there were 380,000 acres of mountaintops destroyed in West Virginia alone--more acreage than is in her state parks. The destruction has accelerated with each passing year, until more than 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried under "fill," the new, Bush administration approved wording for what used to be called "waste." Under Bush, the Army Corps of Engineers changed the wording of the Clean Water Act in 2002, renaming surface mine waste “fill,” and allowing it to be dumped into streams and valleys. Slick move. This is a valley fill. You see the leveled area to the right; well, all the waste from that leveling is being dumped in the big mound to the left. Imagine what happens to this sheer sided, naked pile when mountain downpours occur. What happens is massive, devastating mudslides, and immediate flooding of the communities below. Selenium is a major byproduct, and severe fish deformities are showing up where they aren’t killed outright.

With that single wording change in the Clean Water Act, this administration streamlined and gutted the permit process to allow coal companies to very quickly move into a pristine area, blow up the mountaintop, extract the coal from narrow seams, and then dump all the tailings into valleys and streams directly below the flattened mountain. They bury the streams in selenium-laden mine tailings; they poison drinking water and render whole communities uninhabitable. It's the Git-R- Now mentality, brought to us by an administration that is happy to let our children worry about its environmental policies.*

*(thanks to my artist/environmentalist friend Mike DiGiorgio for that particular crystallization).

These sites have to be seen to be believed, and the coal companies make sure no one can see them from the ground, strictly guarding access from below with locked gates. But there are pilots (SouthWings) offering free flyovers for anyone truly wanting to know what's going on in West Virginia, and I'm told that flying over these moonscapes of ruined, bare earth is a devastating experience. Just looking at these pictures is bad enough. To give you some idea of the scale, the dragline (the white crane in the middle of the picture) is 22 stories high. That massive machine takes the place of hundreds of men who would otherwise be working in traditional, underground coal mines. And that machine completely destroys the mountain in taking her coal.This was Kayford Mountain, 45 minutes from Charleston, about two hours from my home.

Kentucky and Tennessee have been similarly denuded, and for even longer than West Virginia. Much of their landscape is a completely unrecognizable moonscape; it might as well have been paved. The coal companies "reclaim" the stripped, leveled mountains by hydroseeding nonnative grasses onto the baked-hard subsoil that remains. Because all the topsoil is removed, there is no seed bank by which the mesic deciduous forest can replace itself, so the notion of calling this feeble effort "reclamation" would be laughable, were it not so tragic.Let's look at a mountaintop that's been removed. We'll start with mesic deciduous forest, holding the slopes from rain and erosion, full of cerulean warblers, as well as American redstarts, Kentucky, worm-eating, black-and-white, and hooded warblers, blue-headed and red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes and pileated woodpeckers, to name just a few. This was Sugartree Road.Sugartree Road looks like a place where you'd drive with the windows rolled down, listening to the birdsong, sifting through dozens of species as you watch for wildflowers on the forest floor.

First, the coal companies do a clearcut. They are usually in such a hurry that the valuable timber is bulldozed and buried or burned. There's money to be made here, and speed is of the essence. Sugartree Road, after clearcut. Now the mountain is ready to be blown up with dynamite to expose the coal seams. It's gutted and leveled, and the waste is dumped in the valley below.Sugartree after mining.

The rubble in the foreground has been reclaimed. In the middle is a strip that wasn't clearcut or mined. In the background is an older "reclaimed" area. Since there is no seedbank for trees or understory vegetation in the soil, the dominant vegetation is autumn olive, a bird-dispersed noxious exotic that creates a stable shrub community and prevents forest regrowth. It is scrub, and scrub it shall remain.More "reclamation" on Sugar Tree. Good job! We're done here. Coal's out, so's the forest; so are the jobs we promised. We made a bunch of money, and took it all with us. Time to move on to the next mountain.

See anything here for wood thrushes or Kentucky warblers? Or people, for that matter? Ever wonder why the cerulean warbler is headed toward extinction? Does this image help clarify it for you? It certainly helped me understand the larger picture. It's easy for us to point a finger at Colombia, and decry the deforestation that accompanies coca plantations in the highlands where cerulean warblers winter. And so easy to turn a blind eye to what we're allowing to happen on the cerulean warbler's breeding grounds.

Here's one mining project by the Powellton Coal Co., superimposed on a map of greater metropolitan Cleveland. Cleveland's a big city. One project is the size of Cleveland.
And here is a map of Fayette County, the center of warbler diversity in the East, with 23 breeding species of warblers and countless other Neotropical migrants. This is where the New River Birding and Nature Festival is held. It's got the greatest diversity of plant and animal species of any place on the planet, except for tropical rainforest.
The red areas have been removed by coal companies. These mountains are gone forever.

Would you like to do something about this? Would you like to email your Federal representatives, and ask them to put teeth back into the Clean Water Act that the Bush Administration gutted in order to allow this environmental catastrophe?

Not sure who they are? That's OK. All that matters is that you care enough. Go to where you can find out, by typing in your Zip code, to whom you should direct your polite outrage. I did it. I actually got responses, some automatic, some semi-automatic, and one that said, "You can be sure that I will keep your views in mind should this come to a vote."

I wrote back saying, "Well, thank you. That's very nice. But how do you plan to vote?" No response to that one.

Sen. Sherrod Brown is the only one of my representatives who wrote back with anything of substance. He is now my hero. He wrote:

"Environmental protection should be among our nation's highest priorities, yet all too often the current administration has acted to weaken existing rules and regulations protecting our environment. Mountaintop removal has serious consequences for our environment--from deforestation to toxic runoff in our streams and rivers. I was disappointed by the Administration's recent rule allowing for the expansion of this troubling practice. We have an obligation to protect and conserve our natural resources and I will keep your thoughts in mind as legislation pertaining to this issue progresses through Congress."

That's what I'm talking about. That's a politician who is willing not just to nod and smile at his constituents, but who is willing to say what he thinks. And he's thinking.

You can learn more and find out how to take more action by visiting the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy web site.

My deepest thanks to Deborah Griffith, writer and activist, for waking me up and providing these pictures and the mind-altering information behind them. Thanks also go to Cindy Ellis of the Highlands Conservancy for her support, and to both of them for fighting. This is not a good thing, this thing that is going on in our mountains.


right on! and write on! Good for you, Zick!

This is an eye-opening and distressing expose'. I hate to say it, but I have a sad feeling you ain't seen nothing yet. As we get more and more desperate in our search for energy to maintain our fundamentally-flawed "non-negotiable" American lifestyle, more and more destructive practices will go on and fewer and fewer people will complain. From mountaintop removal in West Virginia to shock and awe in Iraq we will do anything but question the way we live. I'd write to my reps, but even my local ones don't bother responding. Yeah, I'm in a really great mood now. I only hope SOMEBODY with the right connections and skills reads this and is moved to do something.

Important stuff... good that you're lending the weight of your voice/blog to it, spreading the word. SO MUCH devastating crap has come from this Administration and its cronies, no blogger ought feel hesitant about drawing attention to some of it on occasion.

JZ - I love your blog; I love the journeys in the natural world you so eloquently take us on. I lust after the bird and animal science and natural history that you impart so wisely; I adore the Chet Baker posts beyond imagine....but this is with out question the most important and profound topic that you've yet covered on your blog. When the disbelief and the gut wrenching nausea pass -- I would like to return and reply with something intelligent.

I believe the power of blogs to inform, educate and bring awareness is immeasurable and untapped. I believe that a voice like yours can ripple through the blog pond and force a tidal wave in West Virginia. To my mind you've just brought blogging to the next level and as a devoted reader I'm moved and touched by the power of your words and the possibilities of hope and change that follow. Thank you.

Oh, Julie, this post makes me sick! I grew up in eastern Ohio, in the area of Jefferson, Harrison, Guernsey, Muskingum, Belmont and Noble Counties in the 60's and early 70's, right in the heart of strip mining land, when draglines like the Big Muskie reigned. To see my beloved hills cut down, turned over, and dumped out broke my heart. Yes, AEP et al has donated the land back, and The Wilds and other projects are working to salvage it, but no one can ever replace what was lost.

So, too, will be the legacy of West Virginia if the coal companies are allowed to get away with raping the land in the name of the Almighty Dollar.

Those beautiful woods and quiet winding roads will be gone forever more, as well as the birds and flowers that live there. I was introduced to my Life Worm-eating, Cerulean, Prairie, Canada and Swainson's Warblers at the New River Festival last year, as well as other birds, some of them by you or Bill. How sad to think that others might miss that experience.

Although this post nauseates me, it is an important one, and I'm glad you are doing this series. Loving birds and nature doesn't just mean looking at the pretty pictures, it means facing up to the ugliness as well, and doing your part to stop it.

Thanks, Zick, for telling it like it is.

~Kathi, whose verification word is the oh-so-appropriate AAKCKC

Thanks for the post Julie. Unfortunately this is happening wherever energy resources, energy companies, and the Federal government collide. In the West it is the wind, coal and natural gas, a variety of energy companies and the BLM at the expense of Greater Sage-Grouse, Gunnison’s Sage-Grouse, Sage Thrashers, and Sprague’s Pipits. At least there is a chance of reclamation with many of these areas (at least until they start strip mining the coal). Too many people and too little value in the world that supports us.

Posted by John Carlson June 2, 2008 at 6:39 PM

You know how I feel about Sugartree Road. I'm sparked about this whole horrid ordeal. You keep venting and writing, Julie. We need you. I just don't know what to say or do.

Everytime I see something like this it breaks my heart. I couldn't help but outright cry when I saw the pictures of the road. It can be very hard to hold onto hope when presented with images like this. The sheer scale of the detruction is absurd.

Until we totally reject our culture of profit and greed, realizing that we are destroying our planet in our search for more more more, there is no hope for the environment. Our present society will be sucking the last barrel of oil out of the ground before we realize that it is not sustainable. Burning coal should be considered morally reprehensible in light of global warming. What is needed is a total change in our value system where sustainable life is valued above capital gain. What is happening in West Virginia is indicative of what is happening all over our planet. If this is depressing to you, consider what is currently happening to our natural world in China. For over fifty years I have watched the continual, relentless destruction of our natural world. Lost species, lost habitat gone forever. It breaks my heart. Another extinct warbler is not going to make any difference. Our planet is already destroyed and over the next several decades we will watch the death throes of the earth and the society that brought about this calamity. How very sad, sad, sad ...

I remember watching a PBS program (NOW)about this and felt so disgusted. I looked it up and am surprised it was way back in 2002-2003. Here is a link to the program and more information:

You won't be able to just click on it I'm afraid (don't have the time to figure it out this morning).

Julie, I feel the same way about trying to keep my blog positive, but life is not a bowl of cherries all the time. I'm thrilled if just one person is touched by one of my elephant postings to take the time to look into it. You have no idea how many people look at your blog and never comment. We can all write letters and help but maybe just that one person who has the right connections will read this or be referred to it and really get the ball rolling!

Oh, and I've been out of the loop lately and want to offer my heartfelt condolences on dear Ruby.

OH, and loved your post on the wolf! What a sight that must have been. I remember driving up to the North Shore (of Lake Superior) a few years ago with my sisters and we saw this large tawny "thing" looping across the interstate. Realized a few minutes later it must have been a cougar as they have been spotted in northern Minnesota. What a thrill!

Don't ever apologize for expressing outrage and encouraging people to take action against such blatant greed and disregard for our future! You have a voice that many value and respect, and so you have the ability to move people to action. Sadly, it's not only West Virginia that is being destroyed this way. But there are also bright spots where The Nature Conservancy and others are working to hold back humankind's attempt to destroy what keeps us alive.

There are many issues we all have to think about this election year, but few are more important than making sure that the destructive policies of The Current Occupant (thanks to Garrison Keillor for that title) and his cronies are reversed...soon!

Representatives and senators DO listen and take note when their constituents speak. They know that those voices are attached to votes and money, things they all need. Thanks for reminding us that a few minutes and an email or a phone call are little to ask when the creeping destruction of our world is at stake.

To quote Jean Ritchie on mountaintop removal, Julie, may you always be "against not saying anything." Apathy is our biggest enemy in this state, in this country in fact, but here it's eating us alive.

Someone "with the right skills and connections" is well and good, and this cause can use all the big names, money and attention it can get. But big names ARE speaking out, numerous books have been written on the subject (great books—go the the websites and find them), and in fact a segment on mountaintop removal just aired on CNN May 22 and a documentary on the subject recently won an award, presented by Al Gore, at the Nashville Film Festival.

What is most essential is for the rest of us to speak up — with our voices, our money, and our votes. Make your views known to your representatives, support the organizations that are out there on a daily basis keeping watch on the coal companies. Watchdogs from the Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Appalachian Voices, and several other organizations are regularly in court, challenging all sorts of illegal permits and practices
on the part of the coal companies,the DEP, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The day-to-day pressure to ensure compliance with the laws, to get some laws changed, and to change the public's perception of mountaintop removal mining
will ultimately do more to end MTR than will even outside attention or assistance.

Thank you, Julie, for being one of those eloquent voices — here and at New River!


Open Fire Poster

This is not a poem
this is a call to open fire
that all those who use the pen
are getting from all those
who work the plow. — Alokdhanwaziov

A great post on this terrible environmental disaster, Julie.

Excellent post. If you aren't familiar with I love the mountains site you might want to check it out. They are trying to end mountaintop removal. A friend in KY is very involved in that and works on this issue with a group there. She'll be so happy to hear about your post and I'll send her the link. I came here via "From the Far Away Nearby".

Good post on an important subject.

Yes, is produced by Appalachian Voices, a great organization. Their site ( is really informative, too, and you can access ilovemountains right from their homepage.


Thank you for informing us. I have sent my email. It seems like such a large problem, but together we are stronger. I have to believe that.

Julie, I have been struggling since last night to articulate what I want to say. Educating people about this kind of corporate behavior, and trying to change the government policy that permits it, is what I do for a living. It often wears me down. And sometimes when the greedy oil miners in Alberta or the greedy gold miners in Mexico and the idiotic governments that allow them to pillage the earth and to trample human rights get to be too much, I come to visit you and Chet and whomever else you encounter in your day. Your blog is a tonic, even when you raise difficult topics.

So to come here and find the greedy miners and the idiotic governments should drive me over the edge, no?

No. Because you’ve written so well about this that you’ve motivated people to take action. And if more people like you cared and wrote about this issue, and more people like this great little blog community took action, then politicians might listen. (I’d be out of a job, but that would leave more time for birdwatching.) I hope everyone here will continue to hassle their Representatives and Senators on this issue. I know from experience that if enough of us make enough noise we begin to sound like a symphony that it’s impossible to ignore. And change happens.

Thanks for hitting the tuning notes.

Julie, This is a PS. I read your post fast and then returned to read it again more slowly. I missed that you had already included a link to ilovemountains on your post so I'm embarrassed that I mentioned that organization as a good place to go in my first comment. That will teach me to read fast. Again, you did a great job in this post. Take care, Carver

When did you change your photo? I like it, but Baker on your head? I was expecting that for your next one.

I emailed my representatives as you suggested. I received an arrogant reply from Norm Coleman (R) MN. He assures me that he'll keep my views in mind, but the protections he was emailed about don't need to be enacted because there are already protections in place. I can't wait to cast my votes in November for those who actually care about Mother Earth!

excellent awareness raising post. I am not American, but i feel angry on your behalf, how dare the greedy ones be allowed to get away with this? I suggest you all write to the Presidential hopefuls, (Obama, Clinton and McCain), show them this article with its pictures so that they cannot claim to be uninformed, and then ask them what their policy is going to be on this issue. I would also send the link to various influential journalists and TV media people who have a wider voice, asking them to hound these Presidential hopefuls until they give definitive answers to the question. Keep up the good work!

Dear Julie, I was directed here by T.R. of Far Away, Nearby. I had seen a story about this on PBS a few years ago, but I hadn't heard anything recently. Thank you for this helpful information. I will follow the link to see whom I can write to. We are facing a similar situation here in the Tucson area where a mining company wants to start an open pit mine in the Coronado National Forest in the Santa Rita Mountains. This mine will be just east of Madera Canyon and west of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The mining company intends to dump their "fill" into nearby canyons and the fear is that the water will drain down into Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek. All of these places are critical birding areas. I have written a post about it in the past and have intended to write a new one. The public comment period is open until July 14th. There is a link to the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas on my blog or you can just enter their name into your search engine. You have inspired me to get going on a new post and soon. I live on the Northwest slope of the Santa Ritas by Mt. Fagan and this mine will affect me and all my neighbors. These scenes on your blog are heart wrenching. Thank you for calling our attention to this matter.


I liked the post. I intend to not give in to hopelessness. As a freelance reporter, the pursue the answer to the question of what we can do about our problems. As a member of society, I participate in the solutions as best I can.

Thanks for your post. I've always wanted to write and the idea I have includes strip mining in the plot. As a young child I lived about an hour out of Pittsburgh and remember seeing landscape obliterated by mining, and always...always...a bad smell in the air. I thought it had all stopped, didn't know it is still going on.

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