The Social and Environmental Impacts of Mountaintop Coal Removal

by Dr. Randi Pokladnik

Harry Caudill wrote of the plight of coal miners in his book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands. He said, “Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies. When men begin to wrest it from the earth it leaves a legacy of foul streams, hideous slag heaps and polluted air. It peoples this transformed land with blind and crippled men and with widows and orphans. It is an extractive industry which takes all away and restores nothing. It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies.”

On the few occasions that we visited West Virginia, I often wondered why people seemed so poor. On one trip down to Racine, WV our church sent several truckloads of food and clothing. I was surprised when a local woman asked my aunt how to cook a grapefruit. She had never seen one.

The coal fields of Appalachia and the people who live in those areas are caught in a circle of poverty. For decades, local, state and federal politicians have refused to break the stranglehold that fossil fuels have on the region, by investing in green jobs.

This mindset continues as oil and gas move into the region bringing with them more social and environmental issues. Today, McDowell County remains one of the poorest counties in the United States yet it exported more coal than almost any other county in the United States.

Kayford Mountain sits in the middle of mountaintop coal removal. Until his death in 2012, Larry Gibson made it his mission to show the world the devastation surrounding his family home on Kayford Mountain. Each fall a prayer vigil is held on top of the mountain. People are taken to a spot where they can safely look over the ridge to see an actual MTR coal site. I was able to take my husband to see the site in person. Looking at the vast acreage of carnage left behind by MTR makes a profound impact on most people. I challenge anyone seeing this to waste energy again.

As a descendant of Appalachian coal miners, and an energy user, I often consider my complicity in the deaths of mountains and men. We are all used to having electricity at our disposal but very seldom do we consider the costs both socially and environmentally of that energy source.