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by Betsy Reeder | 2006

The mountains of West Virginia excite the love of a young explorer, and the greed of “King Coal.”

They say you never forget your first love. I fell in love for the first time when I was seventeen, on a spring-break trip to West Virginia.

Having persuaded a few parents to serve as chaperones, a group of us—graduating seniors—set out for our vacation spot: Canaan Valley. It was mid-April, with the first greens appearing on tulip trees along the route from central to western Maryland. Late-day light soon succumbed to darkness; my carpool friends and I couldn’t see the mountains rising above us as we approached the Allegheny Front. After several miles of switchbacks, our headlights alternately shining on jagged rock faces and empty black space, we reached the West Virginia Highlands.

We woke the next morning in a state-park cabin to the sound of wind. Snowflakes somersaulted out of a heavy sky. Perfect weather for exploration!

After a hurried breakfast of oatmeal, Boyfriend Bill and I set our sights on the nearest mountain. The ascent was rugged and steep enough to warm us; we were winded and red-cheeked by the time we reached the rocky top. What we saw were more mountains, wooded and stark beyond a veil of light snow. Although rhododendrons, hemlocks, and spruce wore their valley greens, the upland hardwoods showed not a suggestion of spring color—they slept in winter grays.

From the snow-frosted summit, Bill and I plunged down the mountain by a different route, our descent accompanied by screams of delight as we grabbed slender trunks with mitten-clad hands and swung around them to keep from accelerating into a fall.

We emerged from the woods and crossed an old orchard and a gravel road, lured by another peak. We once again became overheated and breathless as we climbed and climbed through steep-faced pastures. There was no one in sight, only we two and the wind, the snow intensifying as each murky cloud swam by. Occasional breaks let light pour down in golden fingers that spotlighted an individual maple or a swath of distant forest.

We reached the new summit, which offered a magnificent view of wooded mountain ridges, and began to talk in whispers, feeling awed by the sight and sheepish about trespassing. With pangs of reluctance, we headed back.

That night I lay awake reliving the cold, the wind, the snow-dusted slopes. I could picture Canaan Valley, stretched around me like a vast welcoming hammock between wooded mountain ridges. Even in its seeming slumber, the landscape hummed with life, as if charged with electricity and waiting for Spring to pull the  switch.

Over the years, I’ve returned to West Virginia—for adventure, comfort, inspiration, and renewal—more times than I can count. The only cloud that has darkened my time there is persistent anxiety about strip mining, a practice that has largely replaced the more dangerous and labor-intensive method of sending miners underground for coal. I’ve never had more than glimpses, however; mining companies are careful to keep the worst of the devastation away from roads and trails.

Then, a few years ago, I read about something even worse than strip mining, something called mountaintop removal, or MTR. The coal industry had started taking entire mountaintops off to get at the coal below. Not only are oaks and maples and rhododendron thickets and mossy springs wiped off the face of the earth, but entire water-chiseled, 400-million-year-old mountaintops are blasted away and dumped into neighboring valleys, thereby destroying valley ecosystems, with their inevitable streams, to boot.

I couldn’t believe such a thing could be legal. Don’t we have laws that protect our waters? And who owns the mountains—aren’t they a national treasure for all of us, and generations yet unborn? Someone gets to remove them??

Mountaintop removal has been called “strip mining on steroids.” It’s been called “mountain range removal.” It’s been called ecocide because it destroys entire ecosystems. And these ecosystems are some of the most biologically diverse to be found in the U.S. West Virginia alone boasts thirty-four species of salamander. Its forests also serve as breeding grounds for many species of neo-tropical songbirds, which make a journey thousands of miles long to return to forests—not mutilated mounds of rock—each spring. Many of these migrant species are in decline. Because they don’t breed in their southern wintering grounds, the Appalachian forests in which they nest may be even more critical to their ultimate survival than the tropical forests to which they migrate.

And, these forests are beautiful beyond description. They are verdant mosaics of hardwoods and evergreens, yielding to fern- and blueberry-clad “balds” at higher elevations. An understory of rhododendron and laurel bewitches when it blooms. And on a clear night—oh, the stars. “Almost heaven” is a line that rings true not only for West Virginia but for all of Appalachia—save those cursed parts devastated by mining.

Besides their aesthetic appeal, the
mountains of Appalachia offer renowned recreational opportunities—to camp, rock climb, hunt, fish, hike, backpack, bird watch, mountain bike, horseback ride, photograph, ski, canoe, kayak, and white-water raft in the wilds of the East. Coal companies’ profits represent the irreplaceable loss of tourist dollars, not to mention immeasurable quantities of sheer human enjoyment.

Coal mining has an even darker underbelly. I read about a boulder, freed from a Virginia mountain’s grip by mining activities, that rolled downslope in the middle of the night to crush a boy as he slept in his bed. I also read a published letter in which the writer described a visit to Blair, West Virginia:

I was in Blair yesterday. . .. They have moved in and they are taking it! The houses in the community have burnt one after another. . .. One house has a sign next to it that says, ‘keep out we still live here’ because of looters stealing from other houses….When everyone got what they wanted the coal company came in with backhoes and a dumpster and hauled away what was left…. They are offering rock bottom price for the people’s homes. They only pay for the square footage of the homes and say that the property is part of the deal.

 

The historic road signs in Blair disappeared overnight. They are gone…there is not one left.”

 

I wondered how many other towns have already disappeared. And how many acres have been lost.

An answer came from John G. Mitchell in the March 2006 issue of National Geographic: “So fast has the practice spread that there’s no accurate accounting of the area affected, but surface mining in general has impacted more than 400,000 acres (160,000 hectares) in this four-state Appalachian region, including more than 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) of streambeds. If the practice continues until 2012, it will have squashed a piece of the American earth larger than the state of Rhode Island.”

That was it; I had to take action, however small, to stop this unspeakable crime against the Earth and its inhabitants.

First, I needed to know how my local utility company generates electricity and what, if any, other options I have as an energy consumer. After some searching on the web, I had my answer.  My utility company relied on fossil fuels, and fifty percent of its electricity came from burning the dirtiest of them all, coal.

I was aghast. Every time I turned on a light, I was supporting the leveling of mountains in West Virginia? That realization didn’t sit well, to say the least.

I thought about all the ways I could save electricity. I bought energy-saving fluorescent bulbs. I adjusted the thermostat. I bought a “blanket” for my hot-water heater. I tracked down the most energy-efficient refrigerator I could afford when the old one died. And thanked my lucky stars that I have double-pane glass in my windows, a reasonable cushion of insulation wrapping my house, and a pellet stove that lets my aging heat pump work less hard. I even began to double up when I bake: if a casserole is in the oven, so are brownies.

Still, I wasn’t satisfied. How could the changes I made in my little townhouse possibly send a message to the coal industry, especially when “McMansions” are sprouting all around me, to the delight of everyone who makes money off energy and material resources?

I did more research. I soon found another utility-company option, one that offers “green electricity” made from burning biomass. When compared with fossil fuels, biomass is cleaner burning; it generates less global-warming carbon dioxide; and it doesn’t require that mountains be blasted into valleys. And power generators fueled by biomass such as switchgrass can, like coal, deliver power to the grid in a timely response to demand, so their production could be fully applied to reducing the need for new coal-fired plants. Green electricity, as it turns out, costs more than the fossil-fuel type, but I couldn’t sign up fast enough, tempering my smug satisfaction with a reminder that energy conservation is still only a partially-achieved goal in my home and habits.

Maybe my actions haven’t stopped mountaintop removal, but they could. Suppose that from a grassroots level America rises up and says this hideous means of mining coal—mountaintop removal—must stop. We will no longer support or tolerate it. We will conserve energy, boycott coal-burning utilities, and demand that our leaders support renewable energy resources, now.

This is my plea and my prayer, that we will make King Coal stop destroying what we owe our children: a landscape graced with mountains—lovely, fertile, and intact.    

 

For energy-saving tips, see “Sierrans Step Up to the Energy Conservation Challenge” in the June 2006 edition of Chesapeake. See also Gerald Winegrad’s article, “Reducing Power Consumption, Reducing Pollution,” in this issue.

 

For information about Maryland’s Energy Star program and products, see http://www.energy.state.md.us/energystar/html/consumers.html.

 

For information about tradable renewable credits, which allow customers to purchase green electricity from out-of-state providers, see http://www.green-e.org/your_e_choices/otherstates_home.html. 

For information about Pepco’s green electricity (available in Maryland, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and Virginia), see www.pepcoenergy.com/NaturalGasElectricity/default.aspx.

 

Betsy Reeder is an educator and environmentalist living in Harford County.

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