By Leanndra W. Padgett
In order to educate people about the effects of mountaintop removal and show the faces behind the issue, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), a grassroots, social justice organization, put on a Mountain Witness Tour this past weekend. Mountaintop removal is a time sensitive subject that affects Kentucky directly. Coal is the third largest source of energy in the US, following only petroleum and natural gas (eia.gov).
Coal mining has long been a part of Kentucky’s economy and has been fraught with controversy over workers’ rights, health and environmental impacts. In the early 1970s, mountaintop removal rose in usage as a method of extracting coal (ilovemountains.org). It involves the use of explosives to blast away layers of rock and dirt in order to reach coal, which is often found in horizontal seams, sandwiched between other substances in the mountain.
Mountaintop removal is a relatively cheap and quick way to access the coal; however, it has many hidden costs. William H. Schlesinger, professor at Duke University, says of a recent Duke study on the results of mountaintop removal that, “This analysis shows the extent of environmental impacts of surface mining practices is staggering, particularly in terms of the relatively small amount of coal that is produced” (dailyfusion.net). Blasting away a mountain is not an action that can be undone, and efforts to reclaim mining sites are questionable in effectiveness and result (nrdc.org).
Not everyone sees the arguments against mountaintop removal as valid though, and mining in Ky. is extremely controversial. It is an industry that dominates the economies of many eastern counties and serves as a traditional source of jobs, extending back several generations for many. The industry is deeply entrenched in the economy of Ky. and surrounding states.
KFTC periodically organizes tours which take visitors to areas where mountaintop removal take place so that they can see the communities and talk to locals affected by the process. Eleven participants from UK, Scott County, Indiana and Northern Kentucky joined together for this event. Dr. Carletta, of GC’s biology department, and senior Leanndra Padgett represented GC.
For this particular tour, participants camped at Wiley’s Last Resort, a primitive campsite located in Letcher County. The site is owned and run by activist and author, Jim Webb. The group enjoyed the beauty of undisturbed nature by hiking to Bad Branch Falls, a waterfall protected by a state nature reserve.
The KFTC group met with members of Eastern Ky. chapters at a member’s home which is directly in front of Black Mountain, an active mine site in Letcher County.
The story was typical: the member’s father used to own property on Black Mountain, but was forced to sell because he did not own the mineral rights to the property — a mining company did. He kept some land directly across the river, which he left to his son at his death.
Now his son, the KFTC member, watches with great sadness as the mountain in front of him is gradually destroyed. He also deals with problems such as dust from the site that makes being outdoors unbearable at times. The dust has corroded the metal roofing of one of his outdoor buildings, as well. He calls himself one of the few who would stick it out.
This Mountain Witness Tour was helpful in understanding the issues related to mining. It allowed participants to see the people and locations affected by the mining companies and put a face on the issue. It was also a time of networking and sharing of the work that KFTC members are doing in their campaigns to stop mountaintop removal. See kftc.org for more information.