I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal And the straw boss said "Well, a-bless my soul"
You load sixteen tons, what do you get Another day older and deeper in debt Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go I owe my soul to the company store--Tennessee Ernie Ford, "16 Tons"--1955
Used to be that oldtimers would sit around and talk about the 50-year flood that nearly washed everything away in 1957. It happened in Choppin' Block Holler, which was once an old coal camp at the side of Dunham Mountain, near McRoberts, in Letcher County, Kentucky.
Letcher County, Kentucky
That was until 1998, the year the Tampa Energy Company (TECO) opened up a new mine site in McRoberts. Since that time, flooding has reached the hundred-year levels, frequently. Now, many times each year, residents have to muck out their houses and businesses every time it rains.
They blame TECO, and with good reason.
TECO says it's an 'act of God,' and that they are not responsible.
"Every time we get a rain now it's the 50-year flood, what with all the destruction coming off that mountain," says Betty Collins, a resident who has had to clean her property repeatedly.
TECO uses a method called mountaintop removal to get at the coal in the mountain. Huge machines strip the trees and topsoil from the mountaintop (this is called 'overburden') and this is thrown into the valley below. Nothing is done with the trees--they are simply destroyed in the process. The topsoil--tons of it--is lost as well. As the mountain is blasted, the rocks are also thrown into the valleys. Smaller pieces are sometimes thrown in the direction of the houses below, like they were shot out of a gun. Mountain streams are obliterated in the process, and natural drainage patterns are disrupted.
TECO Mine--McRoberts, Kentucky
Once stripped of vegetation, the mountain top is no longer able to contain any rainfall that occurs, and cannot slow it down, as occurred when the mountain was intact. The holler below the mountain becomes a funnel which overflows every time it rains.
TECO disputes that claim. They insist that mountaintop removal actually makes them more sensitive to the people and the valley below.
The people just laugh and shake their heads. They say that TECO's efforts to to reclaim the area are merely cosmetic, and disregard the so-called environmental awards the industry gives. Letcher County residents are not in the least impressed by these awards.
"The company and government inspectors tell us the rain's an act of God," said Betty Banks, who lives here. "Well it wasn't God who went up on our mountain with a 'dozer to leave it naked. They are destroying us here." Ms. Banks said her property had not flooded in 40 years before decapitation of the mountain.
The old coal miners, the ones who once picked coal under the mountain with a pick and shovel, loading 16 tons a day, as the song says, are complaining more and more about the practice of removing the mountains. They resent having to live in the shadow of such massive destruction, with waste dumped into the valley streams.
"There's good mining and there's bad mining," said Lucious Thompson, who lives in Tom Biggs Hollow nearby. "Mountaintop removal takes the coal quick, 24 hours every day, making my streams disappear, with the blasting knocking a person out of bed and the giant 'dozers beep-beeping all night so you cannot sleep," Mr. Thompson said.
When miners worked underground, they led quiet lives, with time to relax and be with their families. With mountaintop removal, which employs very few miners and many more heavy equipment operators who operate mammoth machinery to tear the tops off mountains, which define and hold the valleys and hollows, the residents have become witnesses to the destruction of their very lives and livelihoods.
"They make monster funnels of our villages," said Carroll Smith, Letcher County Judge Executive, the top elected county official in Letcher County, Ky. The hollows in his county that adjoin mountaintop removal sites have had some of the worst flooding.
"They haven't been a real good neighbor at all," Mr. Smith said of TECO.
TECO rejects that assessment flat out." We're not good neighbors? That's very upsetting to the people who work for TECO Coal," said Laura Plumb, a company spokeswoman.
Ms. Plumb says that years of garbage dumping by the residents and home building near the streams has impeded the waterways far more than flooding from mountaintop mining has. "Mining does take a toll on the land while it's occurring," Ms. Plumb conceded. "However, when we're done we reclaim the area to better standards than before."
A question might be: How can TECO say that it is reclaimed better than before when the mountain that was there before is gone?
The Appalachian Mountains—and here I’m talking about the whole string of them, not just the Southern ones—are the oldest mountains in North America, maybe in the Western Hemisphere. Their age is estimated at 300 million years, which means that they predate the dinosaurs by 70 million years. In those heady and virginal days, they must have been something to behold, indeed. No dinosaurs, no humans, just endless vistas of ridges and valleys, covered by a vast forest stretching from Europe to Asia.
And then the dinosaurs came, and they romped and cavorted about for 160 million years, while the Appalachians settled into a well-deserved middle age, the forests evolving into newer and ever more diverse species, while thousands of animal species continued to populate the mountains. Waterways formed, and water creatures found their niches and grew and multiplied, and everything was good.
After the dinosaurs died out, a new mammal arose and took dominion of this Earth because he learned to make tools and use them, and he tamed fire, and learned how to use that, too. And that species, homo erectus, grew and multiplied, and everything was good.
A million years ago, the Appalachians were threatened by glaciers which pushed inexorably toward these mountains. For all of their history, they have been weathered, eroded, and have settled down until they are smaller than they once were, perhaps standing as tall as the Rockies in the West. They have changed from snow-bearing mountains to ones of incredible biodiversity, deciduous hardwoods in more than 200 species, more than 2,000 species of animal life. The Appalachian Mountains are unique in the world, and they are stunning in their natural beauty.
Nothing has threatened them seriously in the million years since--until now. The coal extraction process called mountaintop removal has decimated this region; this densely forested range of mountains older than the Himalayas, when viewed from above, reveal the ecological violence and devastation that has been wreaked upon them. Near Pine Mountain in Kentucky, you'd see achingly beautiful green hills giving way to a moonscape, gray plateaus marked by dark and ominous craters where mountains used to be, and huge ponds filled with toxic sludge, remaining there in perpetuity because there is no plan for their disposal.
The good citizens of McRoberts, Kentucky have felt and understood the destruction. They have petitioned their state government, TECO and others for help.
I am not a troublemaker, honest I'm not. But I don't mind rocking the boat a little, when it gets stuck. I've read philosophy most all of my life since I was first introduced to the work of Wittgenstein. Since then it's been Spinoza, Russell, Leibnitz and a really interesting
I am not a troublemaker, honest I'm not. But I don't mind rocking the boat a little, when it gets stuck. I've read philosophy most all of my life since I was first introduced to the work of Wittgenstein. Since then it's been Spinoza, Russell, Leibnitz and a really interesting guy named James P. Carse. I don't always agree with what I read, but read it anyway, 'cause it's good to consider other people's views on important things. As long as they present it logically and sensibly.
I'm a writer and a teacher, too. I lived in the Middle East for a couple of years, voluntarily, as an English teacher. What I didn't know and what we don't know about Islam and the Muslim people should shame us into silence. But most of all I am a child of Appalachia. I'm an eastern Kentuckian, and my non-native friends tell me I sound like it too. They also say it's a good thing my writing doesn't have an accent.
I worry about Appalachia. The region has been exploited by so many for so long, and it always costs the people there some of their dignity and life. We've been fighting Mountain Top Removal there for thirty years, and yet it continues. The cancer rates are off the charts, the poisonings shocking. The mountain streams are under the debris left from removing the mountain tops, and no one seems to care about that. Wildlife dies every day, streams are poisoned every day, and Washington goes on, Sarah Palin goes on as if nothing untoward happened. We have our own genocide going on right here in America, and few outside of the region even know about it. Do you think that if they took the tops off the Rocky Mountains anyone would care about that? I'm not a troublemaker, really. Just rockin' the boat a little.
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