Marsh Fork Elementary-and the rest of Appalachia-are still being threatened by mountaintop-removal coal mining. Can new legislation finally stop this devastating practice?
I'm haunted by this photo. It's of a school-Marsh Fork Elementary in Sundial, West Virginia-precariously set about 400 feet downhill from a massive 2.8-billion-gallon pool of toxic coal sludge. The image, annotated and uploaded by the advocacy group Appalachian Voices, has been boiling my blood since I first saw it a couple years back. About 200 students spend their schooldays there. It's a disaster waiting to happen.Massey Energy's slurry pond is held in place in the hollow above the school by a leaky dam. These dams don't have the best track record. One Massey dam failed in 2000, dumping 300 million gallons of sludge into streams in Martin County, Kentucky. More harrowing was the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster, where a dam gave way and, according to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, "in a matter of minutes, 118 were dead and over 4,000 people were left homeless. Seven were never found."If the Marsh Fork dam were to break, students would have about 17 seconds before the sludge reached their school.But it's not just the threat from above that's troubling. Note the coal loading silo a mere 150 feet from the school. The air inside the building is laden with coal dust, notorious for containing known carcinogens and causing a batch of respiratory ailments. Both of these dangers, the lake of toxic coal sludge and the silos that contaminate the air, are byproducts of nearby mountaintop-removal coal mining. Local parents have fought to shut down Massey's operation there to allow for their children a basic right-a safe and healthy place to learn. But in Appalachia, Big Coal tends to get its way.Of all the stubborn, sorry ways we keep ourselves tethered to a fossil fuel-based economy, nothing is as bang-my-head-on-the-desk outrageously bullheaded and dangerous as mountaintop-removal. The practice-essentially blowing the tops off of mountains to get at the coal seams beneath-is so catastrophically destructive that it seems like something that we'd be frowning upon from afar, an archaic system used in China or South America or some former Soviet state. But it's happening here in America-in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, on a scale that's virtually unimaginable, laying waste to our national land heritage and ruining communities. Our hands are all dirty (most Americans rely on coal-fired electricity), but many aren't even aware of this great ongoing sin that plagues the Appalachian region and its people.Dave Roberts at Grist has long called coala March op-ed for the Washington Post, Robert Kennedy Jr. called M.T.R. "the greatest environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation," explaining that it "has already flattened the tops of 500 mountains, buried 2,000 miles of streams, devastated our country's oldest and most diverse temperate forests, and blighted landscapes famous for their history and beauty."As with the very visible threat to the students of Sundial, the vast scale of mountaintop removal's devastation really must be seen to be believed. Appalachian Voices' I Love Mountains site is a good place to give yourself a virtual "tour" of this great tragedy. (Start with this eye-popping Flickr set.)There is, thank goodness, hope for a legal fix. Back in 2002, the Bush administration enacted a "fill rule" that essentially (and illegally, many argue) allowed for coal companies to dump mine debris into streams by expanding the definition of "fill" in the Clean Water Act. (Streams had been afforded a 100-foot buffer from mine waste, an important protection, though one that already was rarely enforced.)President Obama could overturn this rule with a stroke of the pen, and his EPA could be empowered to enforce it. At the moment, there are also bills in the House (the Clean Water Protection Act) and Senate (the Appalachia Restoration Act) that would dramatically restrict mountaintop-removal coal mining, while protecting the clean drinking water for many cities and the quality of life for scores of Appalachian residents. Last Thursday, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing on their version of the bill, and it looks likely the votes will be there to pass up for a full Senate vote. (Check out this liveblog of the hearing by NRDC's Rob Perks and the Appalachian Voices response.)We must demand an end to mountaintop-removal coal mining. For the sake of our world's oldest mountains, for our country's most historic and diverse forests, for the rivers and streams and ecosystems that depend on them, for our atmosphere and our air. But, most importantly, for the sake of the Appalachian people whose livelihoods, health, and, yes, lives are at risk.NOW WHAT:Contact your representatives and President Obama about mountaintop-removal.