About 60 people gathered at the Winter Sun Hall on Thursday evening for a presentation and public discussion on the environmental impact and health effects of mountaintop removal mining. Following a potluck on the Dogtown Roadhouse porch, local organizer Theresa Gigante greeted attendees and thanked local businesses who made donations in support of the event.
Seven guest panelists representing citizen action groups, including Mountain Justice, Climate Ground Zero, and The Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards explained the practice of strip mining, a technique that began in the 1970’s that uses explosives and large earth moving machinery to extract coal from the ground. Mountaintop removal is a form of strip mining in which the summits of mountains are blown off in order to expose underlying coal seams for extraction. The rubble (overburden) that results is dumped into nearby valleys, covering up head water streams and river systems and drying up wells. Toxic mining byproducts from mountaintop removal and coal processing have poisoned nearby drinking water. Airborne toxins and dust associated with the practice are also a health problem.
A slide show presentation shown at the event outlined strip mining and mountaintop removal operations that have impacted thousands of acres of Appalachian Mountains. A map showed the direct relationship between mining sites and our region’s source of electricity. Panelists shared the work their groups are doing to bring attention to the issue, which includes legislative work, picketing and protesting, non-violent acts of civil disobedience, building coalitions, supporting impacted communities and assisting them to develop economies that don’t rely on jobs from the coal industry.
“How many people know about the Buffalo Creek mining disaster?” a panelist asked. About a dozen in the hall were familiar with the 1972 tragedy that left 118 dead, 1,121 injured and 4,000 people homeless when heavy rains caused a mining refuge impoundment dam to burst. The amount of toxic material spilled from a recent dam break was more than the amount of oil recently spilled in the Gulf, another panelist cited. Toxic slurry from coal processing is also injected underground.
Attendee McCabe Coolidge commented, “Mining disasters come and go. They are every bit as destructive as what’s going on in the Gulf. But it’s not hot news or longstanding news. Why is it so hard to focus attention on this issue?” A panelist responded that New Orleans and Gulf ports are part of the country’s economy, whereas strip mining is done under the radar in poor rural mountain communities. Residents in those communities are often reluctant to speak out. Many of them and their family members are employed by the coal industry because mining jobs are the only good paying jobs available to them.
Responding to remarks about the increase of cancer and other illnesses in communities near strip mines – and after mason jars of...