Current Issues in the Coalfields & Web Resources

Appalachia Today

Appalachia is a diverse region with a variety of cultures, economies and landscapes. Central Appalachian, although rich in a traditional cultural heritage, continues to be one of the nation’s most economically distressed areas.

Since the 1960s when the Johnson Administration declared war on poverty, the Appalachian Region has reflected the successes and failures of public policy to improve the lives of impoverished Americans.  Appalachia nearly caught up with the national median rate of poverty between 1970 and 1980 but the rate of change slowed after 1980.  A decade of strong national economic growth in the 1990s left many of America's communities, including Appalachia, falling far behind median national measures of economic health. The Atlas on Poverty in America provides an historical and contemporary account of economic opportunity in the United States, including extensive data and maps on Appalachia.

Coal in the 21st Century

As world wide demand for energy creates tight oil supplies and rising prices for oil and natural gas, coal is once more king. The U.S. has the world’s largest supply of readily available coal (27%), more than a quarter trillion tons from the Appalachians through the Illinois Basin to the Rocky Mountains – 250 years worth at today’s consumption rates. Electricity consumption in the U.S. has risen 70% in the past 20 years; U.S. energy demands are expected to increase by 33% over the next 20 years.

Coal burning power plants supply the U.S. with half its electricity. They also emit damaging substances like sulfur dioxide -- a cause of acid rain -- and mercury, as well as huge amounts of climate warming carbon dioxide. Coal may well be the fuel of the future but at what cost to the global climate and the land and people ravaged by its extraction?

Missing Mountains

After years of grassroots organizing, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by Jimmy Carter. Viewed as the most technical and complete regulatory legislation to ever come out of Congress, SMCRA and its enforcement has been part of a controversial debate over the supply of energy and energy self-sufficiency in the U.S. from the day it went into effect.

In the U.S. today, one hundred tons of coal are extracted every two seconds; around 70% of that coal comes from strip mines. Exploiting a loophole in the law that allows for creation of flat land for economic development purposes, coal companies have turned to an aggressive form of stripping known as “mountain top removal.” Less labor intensive than underground mining and more efficient and profitable then older types of surface mining, mountain top removal was first tested in Kentucky and West Virginia and has now spread to coal areas of Virginia and Tennessee.

Mountain top removal coal mining involves clear-cutting native hardwood forests, using dynamite to blast away 800-1000 feet of mountaintop to get at the coal, and then dumping the rubble and debris into nearby valleys, forever burying streams. As a result of these mining practices, individuals, families, and entire communities are being driven off their land by ruined water supplies, flooding, landslides, blasting, and 24 hour-a-day heavy equipment and trucking operations. In these communities, where homes are usually the only asset folks have, mining operations have damaged houses beyond repair and decreased property values up to 90%.

These massive mining operations have resulted in equally large hill-top sludge ponds required to wash the coal and dispose of dust, dirt and wastewater. Some 500 impoundments, most in Kentucky and West Virginia, hold hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic black water and coal waste. Fears of other disasters like Buffalo Creek run high.

In fact, a Massey Energy Company impoundment near Inez in eastern Kentucky failed in October 2000. Two hundred and fifty million gallons of sludge flooded two creeks, left 20 miles of stream dead, and polluted the Ohio River. Fortunately no one was killed. Lawyers for the coal company called the spill “an act of God.” See Appalshop’s new release, Sludge, for the whole story.

See the National Geographic March 2006 issue for two stories describing The High Costs of Cheap Coal.

Also recommended is Erik Reece’s article Moving Mountains: The Battle for Justice Comes to the Coalfields of Appalachia in Orion Magazine.

Visit these Websites for more information about destructive mining practices in Appalachia and organizing efforts to stop it.

Coal Impoundment Location & Information System
This site offers general and emergency information on coal impoundments in the Appalachian region, including their locations and related evacuation plans, as well as the latest on the environmental impact, safety, best practices and advancements.

Sludge Safety Project
An effort of several West Virginia environmental groups to improve safety for those living in the shadows of sludge “ponds” including working for their elimination.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
A diverse grassroots organization dedicated to the improvement and preservation of the environment through education, grassroots organizing and coalition building, leadership development and media outreach. OVEC activity encompasses much of West Virginia and portions of southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
KFTC believes in the power of citizens, working together, to challenge injustices, right wrongs and improve the quality of life for all Kentuckians. For over 25 years KFTC members have fought to protect the land and people of eastern Kentucky from the abuses of the coal industry.

Appalachian Voices
Appalachian Voices brings people together to solve the environmental problems having the greatest impact on the central and southern Appalachian Mountains.

Save Our Cumberland Mountains
SOCM is a Tennessee grassroots organization working state-wide for social, environmental and economic justice in areas such as sustainable forestry, clear cutting, strip mining, mountain top removal, AML, toxic issues, aerial spraying, tax reform, voter rights and dismantling racism.

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