I spent spring break with 14 other Concordia students in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. The trip, organized by senior Nathaniel Cook, aimed to expose Concordia students to the great environmental problems facing a rural and poor region of Appalachia. Its focus was on a controversial coal mining technique commonly referred to as mountaintop removal (MTR), which involves blowing the tops off lush, tree-filled mountains to easily and quickly access coal seams. The trip also allowed students to experience cultural and regional differences in the American South, a region of the country that is often stereotyped for being poor and backwards.
Hailing from the South, I was initially weary of traveling “home” as a tourist. While I had never met individuals affected by MTR, I thought I knew what to expect. But upon arrival in Hazard, Ky., I, along with my fellow travelers, quickly got out of my comfort zone.
Hazard is a very small town with a huge coal mining presence. Not only are there numerous MTR sites surrounding the town but plastered on nearly every car are stickers that read “Friends of Coal,” a handout that is used to divide people. One is either supportive of the local community and therefore “pro-coal” or unsupportive (and seemingly unpatriotic, to many locals) and “anti-coal.” The powerful coal mining lobbying groups are able to widely distribute stickers like those to remind individuals of their influence.
So what’s the big deal?
MTR is an extremely destructive type of coal mining. Forget your childhood imagery of a brave coal miner heading deep into a mine, returning above ground covered in coal dust. Instead, think of heavy machines, explosives and just an overall mess. MTR leaves a gigantic footprint. When the coal is mined and the company packs up, the “reclaimed” land looks more like a wasteland. Where incredible biologically diverse forests once covered age-old mountains, patches of non-native grass species are now spread across the flat land.
It looks more like North Dakota than Appalachia.
Yet there is not much pushback by locals. As mentioned above, the coal industry is powerful – so powerful that any water quality issues or health complications as a result of MTR are, in many cases, simply ignored. Their fight seems hopeless.
For many, they or their family work for the coal company. With no other industry in the immediate area, for some coal mining is the only option. And in this part of the region, a job, especially a high paying job with a coal company, is highly valued.
This trip really made me re-think my views on my Appalachian home. Hearing stories from locals, people who know and love the land, allowed me to step back and gain an appreciation for Appalachian culture. While the South is often stereotyped (and in many cases, rightly so), the region has grit. It is filled with music and literature and art.These things, despite the changing landscape, will sustain it.
Matt Hansen, a fourth-year student, writes The People’s Republic of Matt, a politics column in Opinions. He double majors in political science and sociology at Concordia. On Twitter: @MattHansen