Book Review | ‘Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal Mining’

A poignant plea to save region’s natural legacy
By Linda Elisabeth Beattie
Special to The Courier-Journal

Like all Sierra Club publications, Coal Country: Rising Up Against
Mountaintop Removal Mining, edited by Shirley Stewart Burns, Mari-Lynn
Evans and Silas House, is a testament to painterly prose and top-notch
graphic design. But this collection of essays and photographs, albeit
a tribute to Appalachia’s fierce beauty, is also a eulogy to its
forested mountains and an argument to preserve what remains of a
natural legacy.

Coal Country is the eponymous companion text to the documentary film.
Essays, commentaries and oral history interviews by such well-known
contributors as Denise Giardina, Wendell Berry, Silas House, Ashley
Judd and Loretta Lynn characterize the ways in which mountaintop
removal (MTR), the practice of coal companies exploding the
mountainsides of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio to
extract the underlying coal, is destroying the ecosystem as well as
exploiting the culture.

As Burns, author of Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of
Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities, states:
“The consequences of this disgraceful practice pervade the region’s
natural and human landscape. Appalachia is home to thousands of
diverse species of flora and fauna, a number of which can be found
only there, and their habitats are literally being scraped off the
face of the earth. Entire ecosystems are being laid to waste. But the
most precious resource being affected is the water. Nearly all of the
eastern United States depends on waters that originate in the
headwater streams of Appalachia. … Hundreds of miles of streams have
been covered by overburden, and those not buried are in constant
danger of pollution from slurry spills and other wastes that lax
governments have allowed to be dumped into the streams. … The
repercussions will be felt throughout the rest of the East Coast.”

Eric Reece, author of Lost Mountain and an instructor of writing at
the University of Kentucky, regards the continuing “ecological
violence” caused by MTR as a matter of perspective. “From interstates
and lowlands,” he writes, “one simply doesn’t see what is happening up
there. Only from the air can you fully grasp the magnitude of the
devastation.”

That image is “like someone had tried to plot a highway system on the moon.”

But of gravest concern to Reece is the impact of MTR on humans. He
cites an Eastern Kentucky University study finding that “children in
Letcher County, Kentucky, suffer from an alarmingly high rate of
nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and shortness of breath — symptoms of
something called blue baby syndrome — that can all be traced back to
sedimentation and dissolved minerals that have drained from mine sites
into nearby streams. Long-term effects may include liver, kidney and
spleen failure, bone damage and cancers of the digestive track.”

He also relates the story of Debra Burke, who committed suicide on
Christmas morning in 2002 because, as her husband wrote, ‘Our burdens
were just getting too much to bear.’”

A coal company’s blasting had wrecked the foundation of their house
and destroyed the surrounding vegetation, causing the garden on which
they depended to survive to flood.

Among similar stories Reece recounts is that of a 3-year-old boy
crushed to death by a 1,000-pound boulder dislodged by a MTR bulldozer
whose driver was operating without a permit. These deaths, he writes,
are in harsh economic terms considered externalities, costs “not
factored into the price Americans pay for coal.”

Award-winning writer and noted agrarian Wendell Berry attributes the
persistence of MTR despite such tragic tales to the fact that “money
votes, and money buys people who vote. It is because might, with
enough money, does not have to worry about right. It is because, in
the magnetic field of money, the flags and crosses on certain
political lapels turn into price tags.”

The authors of Coal Country hope that by telling the truth according
to scientific calculation and human cost as well as through photos
that fail to lie, rage-filled readers will take action by voting for
only those politicians who realize, as Kentuckian Rully Urias states,
“What we do to the land, we do to the people.”

They also hope that their audience will conclude that viable energy
alternatives to coal exist. Lorelei Scarbro, a community organizer for
Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia, proposes renewable energy
wind farms as a solution for eliminating MTR while increasing local
and state revenues as well as green jobs.

With urgency and passion, Coal Country contributors convey that
“whether we realize it or not, we all live in coal country.”

Linda Elisabeth Beattie, a Louisville writer and reviewer, chairs the
Adult Accelerated Program at Spalding University.

Additional Facts
Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal Mining
Edited by Shirley Stewart Burns, Mari-Lynn Evans and Silas House
Sierra Club Books
294 pp.
$25.95

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