A mountain top removal mining operation sprawls over Guyandotte Mountain, West Virginia. This mountain’s summit has been reformed and deformed, like that of Cook Mountain, just four miles away. Photos by Kent Kessinger and Appalachian Voices, flight courtesy of Southwings.

The Coal That’s Blowing Up Mountains and Wiping Communities Off the Map

Cook Mountain once towered two thousand feet over the small towns of Boone County, West Virginia. It’s hard to believe that it’s part of one of the world’s most biologically diverse communities; the moonscape the mountain has become tells an entirely different story.

Since the coal industry’s inception, Dustin White’s family had carried on generation after generation of miners up to his own father, who made White promise to never become a miner himself. White, born and raised at the foot of Cook Mountain in the heart of coal country, kept that promise; still, he spent the larger part of his life as a coal supporter.

That all changed one afternoon as he peered out an airplane window. Maria Gunnoe, a famous environmental activist and local West Virginian, arranged a flyover for White and his mother after they’d learned Cook Mountain was being blown up for coal. What White saw that day was not the forest he’d known as his backyard his whole life. Draglines and mines blanketed the mountaintop.

“They just looked like cancer on the land,” he said. “I could see all these little machines like parasites, just eating away.”

An island of trees stood out in the vast wasteland. White recognized it; it was his family’s cemetery. He peered down at the speck as he heard his mother sobbing through the crackles of the headset.

“When we got back on the ground, I was angry,” he said.

After researching mountaintop removal mining further, clearing his misconceptions that this form of strip mining was heavily regulated and sporadic, he realized “angry” wasn’t quite the right word.

“It took me a long time to think of a way to describe it to people,” White said. “Finally, it just came to me: it’s like identity theft. I recognize myself as a mountaineer, Appalachian, West Virginian, but when they’re blowing up the mountain and taking away part of your family history, your identity is being violated and part of who you are is being destroyed.”

White has since dedicated himself to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition to fight mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

Massacre on the Mountains

Mountaintop removal mining is a form of surface mining that uses explosives to clear 500 or more feet of mountain summit to expose buried coal seams.

The Sierra Club estimates this mining process will be responsible for destruction of 1.4 million acres come 2020 with mining waste already damaging over 2,000 miles of streams. The Clean Water and Air Act was created to defend vital water sources like these, but in 2002, the Bush administration created a fatal loophole. Mining overburden — containing arsenic, sulfate and mercury among other toxins — has since been permissible to dump in “navigable waters” as “fill material.”

Burying these critical headwater streams causes permanent ecosystem loss and threatens biodiversity. Runoff toxins trickle into the drinking water. The severed summits are left stripped to erode, despite coal companies being required to reclaim the land. Seedlings have difficulty growing in ravaged topsoil.

Driving along the perimeter of a site, you wouldn’t be able to spot a tree out of place.

“They do a really good job at trying to hide these sites, especially from the communities,” White said. “They leave what’s called a ‘beauty line,’ which is just a thick row of trees.”

Past these trees and deeper into the hollers, mountaintop mining operations are planted right above poorer valley villages.

For mining companies, the consequentially sinking property values marry favorably with the decreased quality of life for holler homeowners. Lindytown, once a humble holler just on the other side of Cook Mountain from White’s hometown, is now essentially a vacant lot, he said.

Massey Energy swooped in asking a couple thousand above what prices had been depreciated to and bought out almost the entire community.

After all, these are the people who experience mountaintop removal mining firsthand: mud, dust, flooding, noise pollution and “fly rock,” which is just what it sounds like. These are the people who, in the mine’s eye, are liabilities.

Valleys to Flatlands

The coal travels much farther than these hollers, though. Mountaintop removal is the most profitable method of coal mining and is widespread across Appalachia — namely Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Eight-hundred-some miles away, this coal powers Gainesville.

Gainesville Regional Utilities’ Deerhaven Unit Two is a 251-MW coal-fired power plant. In 2012, GRU deemed another coal purchase contract for 2013 unnecessary based on falling natural gas prices and the biomass plant coming online. A heaping mound of coal remaining from the 2012 purchase still sits at Deerhaven awaiting incineration.

The 2012 purchase totaled 442,800 tons — a volume that would fill half the Empire State Building. The mix was sourced equally from three different suppliers. One-third was entirely deep-mined coal out of Lynch, Ky. Also out of Kentucky, a third of the supply was 40 percent deep mined, 60 percent strip mined. The final third was mined in West Virginia by Patriot Coal, a company hiding behind the marketing shield of the world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy.

While the Kentucky coal is not mountaintop removal coal, Patriot’s extraction methods are murky.

Patriot’s supply contracts do not grant GRU authority to demand its environmental reports, according to John Stanton, assistant general manager of GRU’s energy supply division.

Despite Patriot’s vow to phase out mountaintop removal mining, the coal giant still has its fingers summit-deep throughout southern Appalachia.

Assuming the worst — that Patriot mines all its coal by mountaintop demolition — Gainesville is looking at just under 33 percent of its current coal supply with direct ties to mountaintop removal mining, according to Stanton.

This portion is down 60 percent from the purchase prior, but the drop isn’t due to a conscious policy change in the heart of GRU so much as falling coal prices.

A Cry to Cut Ties

GRU claims to have “never used a significant of mountaintop removal coal,” but what really is “significant”?

When Jason Fults, co-founder of the local advocacy group Gainesville Loves Mountains, asked GRU to provide its past five to 10 years of coal purchase source data, fuels staff professionals said resurrecting 10 years of fuel receipt records, identifying mines, and calculating deep versus surface and mountaintop removal coal would be labor intensive. They redirected Fults to a public records request.

Since Fults created Gainesville Loves Mountains in 2011, he has poured his every hour into pleading GRU to wipe its profile of mountaintop coal.

GRU admits Fults has put up a good fight. They’ve recognized GLM’s efforts have impacted their purchasing decisions and have said — in conversation — that if and when they have the option between deep-mined and surface-mined coal, they will buy the deep-mined coal if it’s the same price. Fults wants commitment.

GRU would even be willing to eliminate mountaintop removal coal from their profile; they know the switch is possible.

“If [our] Energy Supply [division] is directed by its City Commission and GRU Management to establish a system to exclude all mountain top removal coal, the system will be established in an effective and verifiable manner,” wrote the Utility’s Fuels Manager Thomas Foxx, Jr. in an email to GLM.

To move this along, GLM drafted up an ordinance to prohibit purchase of mountaintop removal coal by GRU.

The vast majority of the City Commission has publicly expressed support of the ordinance. Commissioners Thomas Hawkins, Yvonne Hinson-Rawls, Randy Wells, Susan Bottcher and Lauren Poe — who agreed to facilitate conversation between GLM and GRU — all agree they do not want mountaintop removal coal powering their city.

Commissioners Ed Braddy and Todd Chase have expressed sympathy, Fults said. Sympathy but only so much.

Even with the verbally confirmed support of the five of seven commissioners, dynamics shift in the meeting hall. GRU marches in and reminds the commission that adopting this ordinance would mean increased utility rates.

Though the actual figures have not yet been fully and accurately calculated, GRU Fuels roughly estimates “an increase of approximately 1 to 3 percent to the average rate payer.”

“The commissioners get anxious, pressured also by the current upheaval around GRU’s biomass plant,” said Fults, recalling his September meeting with GRU, Chase, Poe and Braddy.

“I cannot support anything that adds one cent more to utility bills,” Braddy said. Their meeting was the first official meeting discussing GLM’s proposed ordinance, and it won’t be the last.

Depending how politics play out, the ordinance looks promising. Poe is optimistic he can get the rest of the commission on board to pass it — or some version of it — before GRU makes its next coal purchase, which is expected to be in April 2014.

Foxx seems to think awareness and activism about mountaintop removal coal has reached its saturation point of influence in Gainesville. “All reasonable goals relative to market and local recognition of the issue have been achieved,” he said.

Perhaps GRU’s “reasonable” is as subjective as their “significant.” This gap between coal purchases has opened up a window of opportunity for the ordinance. “We can actually influence that coal purchase,” Fults said.

Gainesville has to understand why it loves mountains. Moreover, Gainesville has to understand how it’s destroying them.

Dustin White no longer lives at the foot of Cook Mountain; he lives in Charleston, West Virginia and says some people in Charleston, capital of “The Mountain State,” don’t even understand mountaintop removal mining. He visits his family’s mine-shrouded graveyard every two months, despite the mandatory escort, written request and safety training he must apply for each time. The escort monitors White’s visit its entire duration. White sits in silence at his seventh great grandfather’s grave, meters from the moonscape border separating the mines and the headstones.

“People need to know where their coal comes from and at what cost, because people are dying here in Appalachia just so they can turn on a light bulb.”