Saving the Appalachian Mountains

From the faucet a mucky sludge of toxin-filled water dispenses. No one can shower for extended periods of time, and water is only drunk from a bottle. The land is transformed completely, wildlife is scarce and the next dynamite blow could take away the place I call home.  Illness has risen and the air quality has changed. The beauty and livelihood of nature is annihilated, stripped of its rights and extracted for coal.
Many who live in the Appalachian Mountains are watching their home rapidly being destroyed through the process of Mountaintop Removal, or MTR. Recently the National Resources Defense Council reported that coal companies in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee have demolished 1.2 million acres, including five hundred mountains. In order to extract the coal, all vegetation and habitat are cleared and destroyed, typically through explosives. Next a dragline comes and exposes the coal by aggressively beating Mother Earth in order to obtain her resources.

Not only does this affect the land, but MTR has multiple human costs as well. According to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a nonprofit, roughly 50 percent of individuals who live by demolition sites will suffer from cancer, while around 40 percent will reproduce children with birth defects. This is caused by coal companies dumping their chemical debris, called overburden, in nearby valleys, where chemicals seep into ground and greatly affect aquifers and groundwater. This in turn infects drinking water, where we begin to see the repercussions.
MTR only produces roughly 5 percent of the nation’s coal energy, and yet look at the irreversible destruction coal companies are causing  for such a small percentage of coal usage. What was once a flourishing temperate forest full of biodiversity is now transformed into a place where wildlife, plants and other organisms cannot survive because of the toxicity of the land. Nutrients in the soil have been depleted, and the highly acidic soils are planted typically with non-native grasses. Full reforestation across a large mine site in such cases may not occur for hundreds of years. Most sites are left stripped and not taken care of after MTR is completed.
The complexity of the issue stems from the fact that we all use energy, but at what cost? Is the process worth the gained resources if so many suffer from increasing illnesses along the way? Many supporters of the coal industry claim we should be in favor of this horrid endeavor because coal keeps the lights on, provides jobs and benefits the local economy; but how accurate are these claims?  For many, working through MTR may be the only way to put food on the table. It is their only way to survive, for now anyway. Labor, however, is rough and really takes a toll on the individual. Many workers suffer from injuries, and their health is at great risk for being so exposed.

Most people are unaware that the places coal companies choose to extract resources from are in the hearts of impoverished communities. Industry takes over, with franchises being introduced to these towns that either buy out small business or are too much competition. Hotels are built where Aunt Dolly had her bed and breakfast; a Costco stands where farmer Larry’s market thrived; and an Applebees puts your neighbor’s diner out of business. These communities cannot compete with large businesses, and coal companies realize this. They are not there for the communities, but for their resources.

After all these losses, people move wherever they can get access to clean water, air and land. Conveniently for the coal companies, vacant land increases their revenue. Coal companies force people living near the mines to sell their homes and leave. Whole communities, such as Blair, West Virginia, have been wiped out. How can we let this continue?
Luckily many see the value the Appalachian Mountains provide and are willing to continually fight for their existence, no matter the cost. I just hope their efforts do not go unseen. I have always wondered how my grandchildren will know the Appalachian Mountains. Will they wonder why no one cared to collectively stop the damage being done, or will they consider using nature to satisfy their desires normal?

I encourage people to see the destruction being done or at least become more knowledgeable about it.  Two years ago I traveled with a group of Concordia students during spring break to the Appalachian region to research MTR; it changed my outlook and became one of the main reasons I am passionate about environmental issues. The fact this is happening within our own nation while many fail to realize it is frightful. We cannot live thinking that if it does not directly affect us we cannot do anything about it, because we can. Take action, become informed and help end mountaintop removal.

Kelly T. Knutson

Kelly T. Knutson 15' is an opinion columnist for the Concordia who focuses on environmental awareness / concerns in his entries. Originally from the upland prairies of Grand Forks, North Dakota, Kelly recently transplanted to Bemidji where he calls the conifer forests of Minnesota his home. Being ecologically literate and knowing his roots comes at high importance to Kelly. In his spare time he enjoys being immersed as well as fascinated by nature through hiking, birdwatching, mushroom foraging, camping etc. At Concordia he is involved with Sea - Student Environmental Alliance, Concordia Chapel Choir, Eco-Reps as the Coordinator, 2014 Sustainability Symposium planning committee, coordinating the 2014 HILT High Impact Leadership Trip for spring break, and a Lab TA for the Biology department.

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