Do you ever find yourself reading a novel and saying to yourself ‘no, that can’t be true! This guy’s just exaggerating for the sake of a good story…’
That’s what I found myself thinking a few hundred pages into Gray Mountain by John Grisham. The very name ‘Appalachia’ conjures up the grandeur of massive mountains, tall pines and clear waters. You’d assume it would be forever preserved as a National Park, carefully curated while opening up to controlled tourism as its major source of revenue for those lucky enough to live there.
The reality is a nightmare almost too painful to recount. No wonder America cocks a snook at global environmental initiatives when she is prepared to rape and pillage her own backyard for the sake of less than 10% of the continent’s coal supplies. Strip mining has been disfiguring the landscape in this ancient mountain region for decades, but recently the eco-vandalism dial has been turned up to 11.
It’s called mountain-topping. It sounds like a new kind of adventure holiday for ramblers in search of an adrenalin rush. The reality is fracking on steroids. Mountains are decapitated with high explosives, and layer by layer the rock is removed until a seam of coal is reached. If the mountain was covered in ancient trees, these are chopped down and thrown down the valley without even a thought to harvesting the timber. More than 500 mountains in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia have been lost since the practice began in the early part of this millennium.
Over 2000 miles of streams have been filled with or badly degraded by mining waste, and many wildlife habitats destroyed. The coal is carried away in huge, overloaded trucks that have caused hundreds of road accidents, then taken to processing plants. Chemicals are applied to ‘clean’ the coal, with the deadly waste product, coal sludge or slurry, being stored behind dams or injected into unlined old coal mines. From where, of course, it seeps into the water supply and causes massive health problems for the local residents.
Ah, yes, the people. Appalachia has some of the highest levels of poverty in North America, many of the poorest areas aligning neatly with the mountain top operations. Employment is scarce and getting rarer since automation and high explosives do most of the heavy lifting these days. Whether they work in the mines or simply breathe the air and drink the water, their health will be impacted by the end-to-end lifecycle of this dirtiest of all energy sources. Black lung, or what we would call pneumoconiosis, is the biggest killer of coal workers. Once it enters your system coal dust cannot be removed, and there’s no cure as the lungs progressively lose their ability to function. It may be a historic problem here in the UK, but in Appalachia the number of workers suffering the disease reached a 25-year high last month. And it’s effecting people as young as 40, possibly due to them working longer shifts than used to be the case.
Coal burning power stations emit more carbon dioxide than all the cars, trucks and planes in the country put together and are the biggest contributor to the greenhouse gases that are increasingly thought to be behind global warming.
My own limited web research brought to light a website and book first published a decade ago called Plundering Appalachia (www.plunderingappalachia.org) which seeks to have the practice of mountain-topping banned rather than simply regulated by politicians who are, no doubt, in receipt of huge campaign contributions from the very companies they purport to oversee. When you see some of the images of million year-old mountains reduced to a lunar landscape, it’s hard to avoid the question why?
Minor changes in America’s energy policy could replace the amount of electricity generated by the coal ripped from Appalachia’s heartland. The people are too poor and afraid of Big Coal to mount an effective challenge. Maybe Elon Musk could take time out from privatising Tesla to come up with a new plan? Or, perhaps, Donald Trump could spring another surprise on the world and wake up tomorrow as an eco-warrior leaping to the defence of this beautiful but beleaguered region of his empire?
There will now be a short pause while I take another deep toke…
Until next time.