February 23, 2006
Erik Reece: Eyewitness to Loss in Appalachia
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Erik Reece knows and loves Appalachia. Kentucky is his home, and it is coal country. He has written Lost Mountain to tell us about a real place, but a place that is unfortunately forever lost to us now, due to mountaintop strip mining methods dictated by the bottom line. Erik Reece chronicles the year he spent witnessing the systematic decimation of a single mountain. His heartfelt and professional lament of how we are allowing "America the Beautiful" to be devastated by rapacious profiteering should concern us all. The good news is, the people of Appalachia are working to achieve change.
* * *
BuzzFlash: When we first saw the cover image on Lost Mountain, A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia,we thought we were looking at a dam. It took us awhile to realize this was the side of a mountain that had been blown away. Just tell us, as concisely as you can, what strip mining is.
Erik Reece: There are two ways to mine coal. You either go underground and get it, or you get it from the surface. If you imagine the Appalachian Mountains as a layer cake, you have thick layers of sandstone and very thin seams of coal. With the kind of strip mining called mountaintop removal, they just shear off all the trees and burn them, and then they use ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (which Timothy McVeigh used in Oklahoma City) and just start setting off blasts, to blast through the sandstone. Then bulldozers push it down into the streams below - it buries the streams. They just keep blasting down until they’ve hit that seam of coal. They scoop that out and then blast down to the next one. That’s what strip mining is. It’s coming from the surface and going down to the coal seam.
What’s happening now in Appalachia with the mountaintop removal is they are just using the cheapest method of mining possible. They’re burying and polluting the streams. They’re ruining the foundations and the wells of people’s homes that are nearby. What you see on the cover of the book is called a valley fill. That’s where they pushed the entire mountaintop down into the valley. It’s the largest manmade earthen structure in North America.
BuzzFlash: You’re a native of Kentucky, and you teach writing at the University of Kentucky. In your book you describe one mountain in Kentucky, which ironically is called "Lost Mountain," and you bring what's happened there to bear on the whole issue of strip mining. In the course of your covering what happens, the mountain actually is lost. How did you find that mountain?
Erik Reece: When I decided to tell the story of just one mountain, I went to the Natural Resource Department at the capitol in Frankfurt, Kentucky, and started looking to see which permits had been filed for mining. Once I saw on a map that "Lost Mountain" was about to be mined, I said, "That’s it – that’s my mountain. That’s what I’m going to write about."
BuzzFlash: You take the reader on a journey of a mountain that becomes deforested, denuded, desecrated. As you point out, it also leads to potential avalanches, pollution, flooding, obstruction of the water supply, and so forth. People are actually killed as a result of this.
Erik Reece: Yes.
BuzzFlash: You also found a lot of conflict, and that communities are split. There are not many other jobs, but the people also know that strip mining ruins their environment and presents health hazards. Everyone knows someone who has a job in the industry, so it becomes kind of a family feud about whether this should continue or not continue.
Erik Reece: Definitely. Jobs are few and far between. It’s a very poor region, and people have depended on coal mining jobs for a long time. People still feel some loyalty to the industry, though I make a distinction between underground mining and strip mining. I don’t consider strip miners to be miners. I just think they’re earth movers.
BuzzFlash: The coal companies make the argument that this is the cheapest way to get at it, and America needs coal. We need energy resources. We’re doing a service for America. What is your response to that?
Erik Reece: Economists have this great word – "externalization." An externalization is anything that isn’t factored into the price of something. A whole lot of things aren’t factored into the true cost of coal – the desecration to the land, the water, the air, the wildlife that used to live in these forests, and the people who have been killed by overloaded coal trucks, or who can’t bathe their children in clean water, or can’t drink clean water, who have to contend with the flash flooding and mud slides. If it’s just cheap coal that you want, yes, you can blow off the top of a mountain and it’s cheap. But if you are concerned about things like air quality, water quality and human health, it’s not cheap at all.
BuzzFlash: What you get is mountains that don't look like Appalachia, but like Arizona. It changes the whole character of what makes Appalachia a beautiful landscape.
Erik Reece: Appalachia is the most ecologically diverse ecosystem in North America. There are over sixty species of trees, 250 songbirds. I started writing about it because it’s just a beautiful place, and it’s a place I like to go. I like to take my students and I spend a lot of time there. To watch the mountains fall like this is pretty disheartening.
BuzzFlash: You mention that, as a young child in Kentucky, you would go paddling down the creeks and the rivers, and now these are polluted.
Erik Reece: Yes. I’d also like to point out that this would never happen in New England or California. Every time there’s a mudslide in California, it makes the national news. We have mudslides every day that kill people in Appalachia, but we’re remote. We’re poor. We’re not politically represented very well. So that’s what you get.
BuzzFlash: The book is very eloquent. You interweave your personal experience, being raised in Kentucky, with what’s happening to the mountains through the strip mining. The fact is, there is this great challenge facing the residents of Appalachia to somehow balance their need for livelihoods against the desire to save their landscape, and avoid the threats to their actual health. You recount a scene where you call in the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, and you lodge a complaint. You tell them that pollution is going into the water supply from the strip mining, and also that a valley created by the rocky debris is not compacted enough - it doesn’t meet state regulations - meaning that the debris could cause an avalanche.
Erik Reece: Right.
BuzzFlash: They’re not very happy that you’ve called them in because, basically they certified in advance, based on a coal company’s assurance – this is what Bush calls voluntary regulation – but then they never come back. There’s regulation on the books, but it’s not actually being enforced.
Erik Reece: That really aggravates people who live around these mine sites. I had never talked to anybody who made a complaint, and had a regulator come out, and then the regulator said, "You’re right. They really are violating the law here." It seems like the regulators are in the pockets of either the politicians or the industry. So there’s real frustration. Then, of course, over the last five years, we’ve had people like Steven Griles, a lobbyist for the coal industry, and Dave Lauriski, an executive from the coal industry, actually appointed to key regulatory positions in the Department of Labor and the Department of Interior. It's the classic fox guarding the henhouse scenario. No regulation is going on.
BuzzFlash: You talk about reforesting some of these mountains, but you can’t really restore the configuration of a mountain in its natural beauty. You can only make it a little greener.
Erik Reece: That’s a real problem in the original law that Jimmy Carter signed. It said they had to restore the mountains to "approximate original contour." Well, there’s no way to do that. Gravity is working against you. You’re not going to get an original contour back. That really opened up a lot of loopholes allowing these companies to do the most minimal reclamation possible and get away with it.
BuzzFlash: What about the families that say, we need the jobs. If you can find me another job – fine. I’ll be on your side.
Erik Reece: There are very few jobs in the strip-mining industry because it’s so highly mechanized. The strip-mining industry has taken jobs away. It takes 200 miners to work underground. You can strip mine a mountaintop with ten workers.
BuzzFlash: It’s cheaper than underground mining, and some of these mountains don’t have enough coal to justify underground mining, so we need to strip mine.
Erik Reece: Right. I want to see better jobs come to the region – jobs that are part of a clean and sustainable economy - and that will mean reforestation.
BuzzFlash: How much coal do they actually get out of this? Is it really economically advantageous?
Erik Reece: The United States burns one billion tons of coal a year. Fifty-one percent of our energy comes from coal. A lot of that is coming from out West in Wyoming, but 60% is from Appalachia.
BuzzFlash: Some of these companies are a bit shady. You describe a company that lured a local couple into giving up the mining rights on the property they owned by offering them a percentage, a royalty on the coal that’s mined. The company completely devastated the mountain and polluted the property. After profiting off the coal, they declared bankruptcy and didn’t pay the property owners.
Erik Reece: The only reason that couple let them strip that land was that gentleman had black lung, and they needed to pay his health insurance. This happens a lot. The companies will put up bond money to mine a particular site. The bond money is never enough to reclaim the strip job, and so they just declare bankruptcy and start up a new coal company.
BuzzFlash: They ride the wave of the profit, then go under due to debt, declare bankruptcy, and start up another company?
Erik Reece: It’s an elaborate shell game some of them play.
BuzzFlash: Among Kentuckians, are you a lone voice?
Erik Reece: Definitely not. A group called Mountain Justice Summer, who modeled themselves after the civil rights movement, did some creative civil disobedience last summer. They’re going to start up again this summer. A lot of people are getting involved in grassroots organizing. I just happened to write this book at a time when it seems like things are getting stirred up again.
BuzzFlash: This book grew out of an article you wrote for Harper’s magazine?
Erik Reece: Right.
BuzzFlash: West Virginia is normally considered a Democratic state, but Bush won it in both elections. He had said, I’m going to allow strip mining. Do you think that was a factor in his winning? Were there enough people who thought it would be the golden calf in terms of jobs and money?
Erik Reece: It definitely was a factor in 2000. They really came in at the last minute and scared a lot of people, made a lot of promises, drummed up a lot of support. I'll tell you one thing – it’s not going to happen again, because of the Sago mine disaster in January in West Virginia.
BuzzFlash: Which some argue had to do with lack of regulation enforcement.
Erik Reece: I’m arguing that in my article in The Nation magazine. But Democratic Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia has rammed some really strong safety regulations through the legislature. I think West Virginia will probably go Democratic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the governor gets chosen as somebody’s VP.
BuzzFlash: And in Kentucky, what is happening? You have a Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, who has a few scandals of his own, unrelated to coal mining. Here’s a guy who, in Bush style, said he was investigating himself, and then pardoned people who were about to rat on him.
Erik Reece: The legislators around here in coal company are mostly political hirelings. I almost feel we’re going to have to just shame them into doing the right thing, because there’s no political will to do it.
BuzzFlash: Here’s a hypothetical or a contextual question. If you look at Vice President Cheney’s view of the world, and Bush's, they see natural resources as something God gave to the earth for people to exploit. You have Lost Mountain, it may look nice, but God gave it as a gift to improve our lives, and we’re really just taking advantage of the bounty that He gave to us. Is that a factor in the outlook of people in Kentucky?
Erik Reece: A lot of people who are on the side of the industry have made that argument, that God put that coal there for us to use. Some of the fundamentalist Christians think they’re going to a better world anyway, and so despoiling this world doesn’t seem like that big a problem. The other thing is, we just had 86 Evangelical ministers sign a pact against global warming. I never thought I’d live to see it among conservative religious people, that they’re waking up to the notion that the world was God-given, and that maybe we should treat it that way.
BuzzFlash: God gave us natural resources. But God also gave us this wonderful, breathtaking landscape in Appalachia. To despoil it is to scar God’s gift.
Erik Reece: There’s another group called Christians for the Mountains that just started over in West Virginia. So there’s a real interesting coalition getting built up between Christian groups and environmentalists. The interesting thing about that is, to me, an environmentalist is one of the easiest people in the world to marginalize. You just call him a tree-hugger and suddenly, you know, he has no argument. But a conservative Christian in this country carries a lot of weight. They’re hard to marginalize. So it might be an interesting coalition that comes together there.
BuzzFlash: Well, in the old sense of "conservative," a conservative is for the status quo, meaning that mountain is there to be enjoyed for generations to come. That’s truly a conservative perspective.
Erik Reece: My friend Wendell Barry always wonders what conservatives are trying to conserve.
BuzzFlash: Certainly Teddy Roosevelt– a conservative - would have adopted that naturalistic approach.
BuzzFlash: You weave many things into this book and you're obviously extremely well-read. But you’re an investigative reporter. You did call in the Department of Natural Resources. Let's discuss two specific threats to health and safety that strip mining poses. First, pollution of water – ground water that goes into wells and also streams. Second, what is the potential for avalanches? How does that develop? You document that people have been killed in avalanches due to strip mining. Can you explain those two specific threats?
Erik Reece: The water gets polluted in two ways. One is that, when you disturb the sandstone, you release a lot of sulfuric acid, which leaches into the streams. The other thing is you release a lot of heavy metals that get into the streams as well. Downstream, a lot of people are showing signs of poor health.
BuzzFlash: Does that affect the fish?
Erik Reece: Oh, yes, 95 percent of headwater streams have been degraded. From the mayflies at the very head of the stream, on down, you’re just destroying an entire food system. The other thing is that these companies built massive "empowerment ponds" where they store what’s called coal slurry, the byproduct of cleaning coal. This is a huge, black, toxic sludge. It’s the consistency of lava from a volcano. A massive one of these ponds broke in 2000 and spilled 300 million gallons of slurry into Inez, Kentucky. It took The New York Times two months to get around to covering it. It was the largest environmental disaster this side of the Mississippi River, and it got almost no coverage.
Anyway, what happens almost routinely is when these ponds fill up, the companies – in the dead of night - will release water from these ponds. You wake up in the morning, and the stream by your house is running black because they’ve released all this slurry into the streams. Anybody who lives in a coalfield will tell you they’ve seen this. It goes on all the time. So that’s another huge problem. That’s how the water gets contaminated.
BuzzFlash: And avalanches?
Erik Reece: The valley fill has to be 80% solid material, and it is not.
BuzzFlash: The valley fills are the parts of the mountain that have been blown off?
Erik Reece: Right. They’re just these huge earthen structures on the side of the mountain. The companies do a soil analysis before they mine and they turn that in for the permit, but they never do any analysis afterwards. When I made my citizen’s complaint, I had been spending a year up there watching them dump topsoil into the valley, so I knew it wasn’t 80% rock.
I asked the inspector about it, and he said, "Well, it’s close." It was obvious that nobody was going to come back and check it, so I called up Jack Spadaro, the famous whistle-blower that Bush had driven out of mine safety because he tried to do his job. I asked Jack about the valley fills, and he said there’s not a valley fill in central Appalachia that’s 80% durable rock. In West Virginia, they’ve had fifteen deaths in the last five years because of these mudslides. The town of Bristol, West Virginia, has just about been wiped away by flooding and mudslides. And there’s so much sedimentation in the streams now, the streams can’t handle it. That creates more and more flooding, and the flooding is going further and further downstream. What I’m hoping is that the governor’s mansion in Frankfurt will start flooding out because of all of the sedimentation - then somebody will finally take notice.
BuzzFlash: Then we’ll literally see the political rats scurrying for safety. Thanks so much, Erik, for a wonderful book. Congratulations.
Erik Reece: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by BuzzFlash Editor Mark Karlin.
* * *
Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia by Erik Reece, A BuzzFlash premium.
Who Killed the Miners? by Erik Reece, The Nation