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Speaking of Mountains
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by Kim Stenley | 2007

Magazines, books, and a personal journey introduce mountaintop removal mining, a practice of widespread devastation, and the local heroes who are fighting it.

I first met Larry Gibson in the pages of Harper’s Magazine. He was one of many Appalachian residents author Erik Reece interviewed for the article, “Death of a Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Leveling of Appalachia.” which appeared in the April 2005 issue. It was also the first time I heard about mountaintop removal mining (MTR).

I was shocked to learn that something so destructive had been going on for so long in West Virginia and Kentucky, among other places, unbeknownst to me, a reasonably well-read environmentalist. But it had, and does, by design. According to coal miner’s daughter and activist, Judy Bonds, of Coal River Mountain Watch, “It’s the best kept dirty little secret in America.”

The story of MTR has been ignored by mainstream media. In Jeff Barrie’s documentary, “Kilowatt Ours,” we learn of the devastating 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster, in which breached slurry ponds, the byproducts of coal processing, washed away hundreds of homes and took 125 lives. Though the spill was 30 times the size of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, few outside town limits heard about it.

The MTR story continues to get little media play, perhaps because the coal industry, like other fuel industries, has succeeded in hiding its destructive practices from an incurious public accustomed to cheap power. Drive along major highways in coal country and you won’t see the treeless plateaus where mountains used to rise. But you will see billboards that proclaim, “Coal keeps the lights on.”

And, as Reece explores in “Moving Mountains: Will Justice Have Its Day in Coal Country?,” which appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Orion, the coal lobby is far reaching, has deep pockets, and is proving to be a tough opponent to those seeking to put an end to this practice that is destroying so many lives.

MTR isn’t just about losing flora and fauna; it’s also about people losing their lands, homes, and cultures. The people Reece met are doing their best to hold on to what little they have left. The bulldozers and draglines are encroaching, their wells are contaminated, their lawns, homes and lungs are constantly coated with coal dust, and they are suffering from pollution-related diseases. But they are fighting like hell to save themselves and their ancestral homelands.

National Geographic focused its lens on Appalachia in “The High Cost of Cheap Coal” in its March 2006 issue. In “The Coal Paradox,” author Tim Appenzeller explores our nation’s and the world’s relationship to coal. John G. Mitchell, in “When Mountains Move,” looks at how MTR is affecting the people of southern West Virginia, whose family roots in coal mining run deep. In this article I met Judy Bonds, who, like Larry Gibson, is an outspoken advocate for the mountains and its people.

Reece’s articles in Harper’s and Orion became a part of Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia, a book published in 2006. Reece teaches writing at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. His work is a heartfelt, beautifully written, first-person account of the destruction of a mountain in Kentucky over a one-year period. He meditates on the disappearance of the mountain, destroyed for its coal, which is shipped to 22 other states and other countries, and on the process by which it came to pass. His “is the story of how the richest ecosystem in North America is being destroyed, and how some of the poorest people in the United States are being made poorer by a coal industry that operates with little conscience or constraint.”

Other writers also made pilgrimages to MTR sites and surrounding neighborhoods. Their reflections, in the form of essays, short stories and poems, make up Missing Mountains: We went to the mountaintop but it wasn’t there; Kentuckians Write Against Mountaintop Removal. The variety of voices and genres and the honesty with which the authors communicate their impressions of MTR make this a powerful book.

I was fortunate to make such a pilgrimage to Kayford Mountain in May, 2006. After reading so much about the destruction, I had to see it for myself. I found the pictures don’t accurately portray the massive scale of mountaintop removal mining. It’s numbing to think our species has evolved to the point where we can dismantle mountains, eons old, within a few years’ time, destroying large ecosystems in the process.

While in West Virginia, I got to meet Gibson. He is a humble man with a passion for place rarely seen anymore. He lives and breathes to save his home, his ancestral burial grounds, and the mountains many of us love. It takes courage for a person to say no to the coal companies, who are fighting to take ownership of one’s land, while watching the mountains surrounding one’s home crumble to the ground. Gibson is a hero, fighting for his rights, his neighbors’ rights and the rights of all living things in Appalachia.

But he, Judy Bonds and the others need our help against a formidable opponent. We can begin by learning as much as we can about the problem and its solutions, supporting individuals and organizations working to right this wrong, and speaking out against mountaintop removal mining.

Knowledge and action are our only hope for trying to save the Appalachians and the people who call them home.   



For more information on MTR


Erik Reece’s article in Orion magazine is available at


Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia by Erik Reece (Paperback) 288 pages; Riverhead


Missing Mountains: We went to the mountaintop but it wasn’t there

by Kristin Johannsen (Editor), Bobbie Ann Mason (Editor), Mary Ann Taylor-Hall (Editor) (Paperback) 220 pages; Wind Publications


West Virginia Highlands Conservancy,, promotes conservation in West Virginia, especially in the Highlands Region, and provides speakers on MTR.


Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition,, provides a MTR fact sheet and explains what individuals can do to help stop MTR.


Coal River Mountain Watch,, aims at stopping MTR in the area, provides many MTR links, and sponsors a “road show,”

> 2007 Table of Contents


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