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The dirty side of clean coal

November 7, 2008 | 10:00 am

Mountaintop removal is a controversial practice in coal mining in West Virginia and Appalachia

Douglas Fischer at The Daily Climate has a long feature on mountain-top removal, a coal mining practice common in Appalachia. He writes it out of Dorothy, W.Va.:

Larry Gibson lives on an island in the sky.

It didn't start that way: His land was once a low hill in a rugged hardwood forest -– cherry, oak, hickory -– skipping from ridge to ridge across one of the poorest, most rural areas of the Lower 48.

Then came the mining companies with their dynamite and their trucks. They clear-cut the forest, blew the tops off the ridges and scraped the rocks into the hollows, pushing hundreds of feet of mountains into the valleys below.

They came for the coal -– energy that provides half of the nation's electricity and has been touted as a major plank in the United States' bid for energy independence. They left, in Gibson's view, a swale of extirpation and death.

This is mountaintop removal mining, the underbelly of the promise of clean, home-grown energy touted by industry and politicians.

No place in the United States has seen the damage and the benefits of mountaintop removal like Appalachia, where one third of the nation's coal is mined. Today about 30 percent of all the coal coming out of the central and southern Appalachians comes via such surface mining.

"There is no such thing as clean coal," Gibson said, talking to a group of journalists under the canopy of his forested knob, where the sylvan sounds of birds and wind carried an undertone of heavy machinery and tumbling rocks.

"I want you folks to write what you see," he said. "And if you write truthfully, you will end one of the most barbaric practices on the planet."

Gibson is legendary for his stand against mountaintop removal, and has been featured in many stories, a fact Fischer acknowledges in his piece, which also ran in Environmental Health News. He talks with other residents, and mining officials, who show restoration efforts that include reforestation with hardwoods such as black cherry, sugar maple, oak and white ash:

Such work tends to get dropped from press coverage of mountaintop removal, advocates note.

Confronting the same group of journalists that had crossed Hell's Gate with Gibson, Coal Association President Bill Raney had to vent a bit of steam: "You say that mining's not protecting the resources," he said. "It drives me nuts when y'all use that same paragraph. It's absolutely meaningless in terms of what we do out here."

Men like [mine operator Andrew] Jordon and Hackworth move the earth, mine the coal, reshape the hills and reforest them. Or they leave a patch of level ground for a school, a ballpark, a Wal-Mart –- no small asset for a state with preciously few flat spots.

The next ridge over from Jordon's operation is Kanawha State Forest.

"I've got a church full of people who use that forest," Jordon said. "When we got control, I promised those people I'd clean this place up.

He's making good on that promise, too: From the front porch of that hunting shack, looking out over the mining and the earth-movers, an approaching autumn rain engulfs two forested knobs -– artificial to be sure, and reclaimed from the mine, but growing anew nonetheless.

President-elect Barack Obama has spoken out against mountaintop removal. But coal is bound to return to the national energy debate, despite the lack of proven industry-scale technology to remove and sequester carbon emissions from coal-fired plants.

-- Geoffrey Mohan

Photo: A West Virginia mountaintop blasted in 2003. Credit: Pete Souza / Chicago Tribune