In 1971 my parents and I drove through West Virginia on our way from Ontario to Kentucky. We’d never been there before and it was stunningly beautiful. So we took back roads and made lots of stops.
Mom looked at the glass, Dad the car parts. But I saw a kid holding a pup. Then I saw kittens playing in the flowerbed. Chickens scratching around the side of the house. I went to the kids, and the animals.
We stayed a long time, long enough for the woman to ask if we’d like a cold drink. So lemonade and cookies, served on a small table under a tree. When we left, with some blue medicine bottles, they asked if I wanted a pup or the kitten I held. A gift. No, sorry, our dog doesn’t take kindly to sharing.
I don’t remember anyone mentioning coal. But it had to be coal country. Commercial coal mining had been a part of West Virginia for a century and a half by then. But underground mining, not strip mining. Not mountaintop removal. Not on a large scale anyway. Mountain-top removal mining started in the 1950s but didn’t take off as the preferred method of mining until the early 1970s. Just a couple years after we stopped at that house to look at glass bottles.
The oil crisis of 1973 gave an impetus to fast, cheap coal mining. Bulldozing and blasting soil, trees and rock to reach the seams of coal under the land. Taking down the mountain to reach what’s underneath. And taking it down further and further, to reach each seam deeper in the mountain. Until there is no mountain left.
All that soil, vegetation and rock has to go somewhere. Into the valleys, filling them. Thereby filling rivers and lakes, farms and houses. Then the mined coal has to be cleaned. More waterways polluted by the runoff from the washing process.
This is the industry that President Trump wants. Despite the demand for coal having dropped over the past years, due to no real need for it and no desire for the air pollution that burning it causes. Yes, less coal mining in Appalachia caused unemployment. But retraining and economic aid programmes were helping. Then Trump swore he’d revive coal. Miners would go back to work, he promised. Are there really markets for what they’d produce? Not so sure, even in China where coal-burning plants are being phased out.
EPA and coal lobby
The US Environmental Protection Agency, under Trump, is now headed by a former coal lobbyist. Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator, took over from Scott Pruitt, himself a former energy industry lobbyist and a big friend of big coal. Neither Wheeler nor Pruitt have rethought their former employment positions. Both have publicly stated their support for coal and energy industries, even their pride in their former work. Both in charge of the federal agency responsible for, well, protecting the environment. Fox guarding the henhouse?
Mountaintop removal coal mining has destroyed the mountains of West Virginia and throughout Appalachia. Destroying the mountains also means destroying the entire waterway system of lakes, rivers and ponds. It destroys wildlife and fishstocks and their habitats. It also destroys human habitats.
The other big industry in West Virginia is drugs; meth labs and distribution of opiods. That filled the economic gap left by the loss of mining jobs. It destroys people’s health and lives. But it doesn’t destroy the environment as well. Mining destroys people’s health, their homelands and the whole environment. That damage hurts Appalachia and everywhere else too.
If you want a quick primer in the coal industry and mountaintop removal mining, and a good story, read John Grisham’s 2014 novel Gray Mountain. He also writes about those fighting back. The lawyers and legal clinics who fight big coal and fight for the miners suffering black lung disease and other debilitations caused by their profession.
Today, the Trump Administration announced a major scale back of constraints on emissions from coal-fired power plants. The EPA said the regulations set by the Obama administration were “burdensome”. President Trump will celebrate this at a political rally in Charleston, West Virginia, tonight.