A little over a year ago, I was in West Virginia driving slowly behind my husband. He was on his bike near the end of his cross-country bike race. As you can imagine, driving behind a bike never allowed me to go much over 10 miles per hour. So I did a lot of looking around. The two lane road took us through a lush, green forest that felt almost primordial. From my interest in biodiversity, I knew this region of Appalachia was one of the most biodiverse in North America. It is a way station for countless species of migratory birds and its waters are habitat for an amazing array of fish and amphibians.
I don't remember how many miles of that exquisite forest we drove through before coming to an opening where I beheld the strangest site; so strange, in fact, I had a hard time computing what I was seeing. Then I realized what it was. Between two prominent mountain peaks was a bare, brown, flat area, not half as high as the two peaks.
I had read about mountaintop removal of coal; had even seen photos of it. But nothing could have prepared me for the surreal sight of an actual missing mountaintop. Gone! Probably 800 to 1,000 feet of elevation not there. It was then that I remembered with rage what coal companies do with the detritus from the mountains they blew up. They bulldoze it into the surrounding valleys, filling in the streams that are the life source for the region's biodiversity.
It turns out that since this insane way to retrieve coal started in the early 1970's, more than 450 mountain tops have been blown up. More than one million acres of land flattened. Try to imagine a swath of denatured land a quarter of a mile wide stretching from San Francisco to New York. That is what has been inflicted on Appalachia. I find it so instructive as a political activist that this region has one of the lowest per capita income levels in the country. Tremendous riches are being extracted from the land that is home to some of the poorest Americans. We see this phenomenon all over the world. Mega-corporations descend on third world mineral-rich countries and, in cahoots with the corrupt governments, rape the countries and leave nothing for the people but environmental devastation.
The consequences of Mountaintop removal have completely compromised property values throughout the region. The force of the blasting does significant structural damage to homes. Over 100 drinking wells dry up every year. What water is left is contaminated. All over the region are hundreds of facilities euphemistically called "impoundments". These earthen ponds hold the highly toxic coal slurry left over from the extraction of the coal.
Do you remember what the biggest man-made environmental disaster EVER east of the Mississippi was? Probably not. The coal companies called it an act of God when one of the earthen ponds broke during a rain storm in 2000. Imagine that! Earth being disturbed by a little rain! God did it. "It" was the release of 300 million gallons of toxic coal slurry into the Big Sandy River in Kentucky, destroying over 70 miles of river. That is more than 30 times what the Exxon Valdez disgorged into the waters off the coast of Alaska.
SARA NICHOLS is a former public interest environmental attorney who ran for Congress in 1994. She's co-founder of Los Angeles Bioneers and a full-time environmental and political activist who serves on the boards of several public interest organizations.