Research Communications

National Sacrifice 

Environmental scholars cast light on the dark side of Appalachia’s role as the heart of energy production in the United States

November 14, 2011

"And daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
down by the Green River where Paradise lay? 
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking…
Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away."

When he recorded his now-epic lament about the destruction of Western Kentucky from coal mining in 1971, American folk singer/songwriter John Prine could not have known what lay ahead.

A vast new horizon of coal production was on the verge of opening up in the United States, thanks to rising demand for cheap energy and scares over a suddenly fragile pipeline to Middle Eastern oil fields. Coal companies shifted gears and turned to a faster, easier, and more profitable means of pulling the shiny, black rock from Appalachia, America's so-called “Saudi Arabia of coal.”

The industry turned to an extraordinary surface-mining technique that it had tried out in the 1960s in Eastern Kentucky. Known as mountaintop removal, no mining operation could be more aptly named. Instead of bypassing literally mountains of coal buried beneath the ancient, stony faces of Appalachian hills, engineers found that a few well-placed tons of high explosives could simply blow their tops off, laying their coal-studded insides bare for easy pickings. As a bonus for management, the highly mechanized process required far fewer hands than traditional strip-mining or deep-mining operations.

The technique soon spread across West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, and Virginia.  By 1990, dozens of mountaintops throughout Appalachia were decapitated, their remains pushed into valleys, burying hundreds of miles of streams and exterminating wildlife. Today, various estimates by federal and independent agencies have put the total number of mountaintops leveled at around 500, a number that roughly translates into more than a million acres of clear-cut forest and up to 2,000 miles of destroyed or polluted mountain streams and rivers. Meanwhile, Peabody Energy—the company that Prine immortalized in 1971—has become the largest coal company in the world, doing business on five continents.

Aerial view of dust swirling around a reclaimed mountaintop removal site
Aerial view of dust swirling around a reclaimed mountaintop removal site.
Credit: Lyntha Scott Eiler/Library of Congress.

Geoffrey Buckley, Ohio University associate professor of geography, calls mountaintop removal “a textbook example of environmental injustice.” He and his Ohio University colleague Michele Morrone, associate professor of environmental health and director of environmental studies, are co-editors of a new book that joins the growing literature of Appalachian studies on the region’s historically beleaguered environment, economy, and culture.  Mountains of Injustice:  Environmental and Social Justice in Appalachia (Ohio University Press), is a collection of essays that casts fresh light on a socio-environmental dilemma that has plagued the region for more than a century.

For Buckley, who contributes a chapter to the book with former student Laura Allen on mountaintop removal, there’s no better starting point for illustrating “environmental injustice” than the latter-day phenomenon of erasing whole mountains in search of coal, a mineral that provides the United States with fully half of its electricity. The practice feeds on Appalachia’s remoteness (a national out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality) along with its perennially job-starved, poorly educated citizenry with little political power.

“When you think of mountaintop removal, it’s such a devastating process,” Buckley says.  “So very few people in the United States really know about it. What we’re doing to these mountains is really an injustice on several fronts for the people who live there.”

As notoriously destructive as it is, mountaintop removal is only one of the environmental traumas that rural Appalachia is forced to accept, a point that Mountains goes to some lengths to emphasize. The introduction to the book notes that citizen concern about the environmental impact of widespread timber harvesting—which created major flooding, erosion of valuable topsoil, and in some cases, even the loss of life—dates back to the 1890s. A chapter discusses these and other issues, including the decline of biodiversity, surrounding modern timber clear-cutting in the national forests of western North Carolina.

Another major issue facing Appalachia is the widespread siting of polluting chemical factories, landfills, and hazardous waste facilities—including radioactive sludge from nuclear power plants. Since the 1980s, Appalachia has been a dumping ground for garbage that couldn’t be legally placed elsewhere, the authors note.

Some of the book’s more chilling stories about the dangers of waste facilities concern accidents in which dams of toxic coal slurry—a byproduct of burning coal—collapse. On October 11, 2000, an impoundment owned and operated by a subsidiary of the Massey Energy Company discharged an estimated 306 million gallons of sludge into the Tug Fork River in Kentucky. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of streams and fouled the drinking water of more than 27,000 residents. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that the spill was 30 times larger than the 11-million-gallon oil slick produced by the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the authors write. A similar incident in 1972 took a more drastic human toll in West Virginia: A torrent of coal wastewater killed 125 people, injured hundreds more, and left thousands homeless.

Mechanics of Money

Mountains of Injustice picks up on a socio-economic phenomenon that first gained national attention in the early 1980s. Alarming reports of poor communities (largely African American) throughout the South becoming favorite sites for hazardous waste dumps and polluting manufacturing processes triggered cries of “environmental racism.” A 1987 study sponsored by the United Church of Christ, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, proved even to skeptics that environmental racism not only was real but that the phenomenon was widespread and a de facto, if secret, policy in which both industry and government agencies were complicit.

That study, along with others since then, tended to focus on cities where gross environmental disparities between largely segregated communities were obvious for anyone who cared to look. Landfills and incinerators somehow migrated in disproportionate numbers to black communities, as did parks and recreational facilities to predominately white ones. Buckley says the new study looks at what is happening now beyond city limits, in some of Appalachia’s most rural communities now beset with many of the same problems that once were considered largely an urban phenomenon.

There’s a big difference between manmade insults to urban environments and those inflicted on Appalachia’s wild areas, Buckley says, namely that the former often can be cleaned up given enough money and time. Mountaintop removal, for example, leaves in its wake a permanently altered landscape that no amount of time or money can fix.  It also creates the illusion of healthy economic growth, Buckley says, that powerfully fuels widespread public support for the practice by local communities hungry for jobs.

“This is where I see the real social and environmental injustice in all of this,” he says.  “Not only does this practice permanently destroy these people’s backyards, but because there are so few alternative economic opportunities for the people living in these areas, there are a lot of people who feel that they’ve got to support all this devastation because it means jobs.”

While there’s no argument that mountaintop removal creates jobs, the numbers show how the practice also helps eliminate them.  At the peak of strip-mining in Appalachia in the 1950s, the coal companies employed more than 150,000 miners. Today the number is less than 14,000, thanks largely to mechanization on a scale unheard of just 30 years ago.

“As the industry has continued to mechanize, most of these people (in rural Appalachia) simply don’t have a future,” Buckley says. “Some good, high-paying jobs will always be there, of course, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the communities got years ago in terms of economic benefits from this industry.”

Buckley emphasizes the irony behind the economic argument that drives the practice as much as the relentless rise in domestic demand for power.

“In West Virginia, the poorest counties with the highest poverty rates also have the most surface mining. You’d think that selling all that coal would bring some money back to the counties, but in fact, by and large, the profits from these industries don’t fall back into the region,” he says.

Zones of Sacrifice

While Mountains takes its theme from the central environmental crisis now afoot across the heart of Appalachia, mountaintop removal, the book offers readers a much broader perspective that helps define the true sociological, cultural, environmental, and economic dimensions of life throughout the region as shaped by the coal mining industry today.

Stephen Scanlan, Ohio University environmental sociologist, contributes a chapter that summarizes the region’s environmental and political history that has helped create what he believes may be “the most significant tragedy in Appalachia, if not the entire United States.”  He puts into historical context what may well be the region’s most famous characteristic—widespread, entrenched poverty. Scholars differ on how this debacle came to be (Scanlan holds that it’s a combination of a historic lack of regional development and a willingness to let powerful outside corporate interests decide what’s best for the communities) but the result is the same: Generations of economic malaise have woven a cultural fabric tailor-made for justifying the wholesale destruction of one’s own land and heritage for a paycheck.

This is why Scanlan agrees with other researchers who call much of Appalachia a “national sacrifice zone,” a regrettable byproduct of the nation’s insatiable demand for energy, coupled with the historic inability of Congress to establish a rational energy policy for the country. “We’ve simply decided to sacrifice these areas for the best interest of the country’s energy needs,” he says.

Taken as a whole, Mountains can be seen as a testimonial to what many critics have been saying about Appalachia’s environmental misfortune for years, namely that what’s happening to the region and its people—largely by outside corporate forces aligned with compliant governmental regulators—is a consequence of what amounts to a critically important stratagem of an unwritten national energy policy. Buckley calls this a “national tragedy” that cuts through environmental issues and into the heart of social ones.

Addressing mountaintop removal specifically, he writes: “…perhaps most damaging to some is the loss of emotional and spiritual attachment to the mountains that the Appalachian citizens call home. With strong historical, family, and cultural ties to the land that has been reinforced generation after generation, there are real emotional scars (left on residents) who feel powerless to fight (the mining industry).”

Scanlan argues that, to the contrary, Appalachians aren’t powerless at all. For one thing, they only need to look at their long history of labor unrest, dating to bloody conflicts in the 1890s. As ugly as those early struggles were, they nonetheless eventually brought about fundamental changes that vastly improved the lives of workers throughout the region, he says.  Efforts by the United Mine Workers Association and the labor movement led to the eight-hour work day, the right to form unions and bargain collectively, health and retirement benefits, mine safety regulations, and more.

While it’s obvious to him that “environmental justice is not on the corporate community’s agenda because of the need to keep the (power consumption) treadmill running,” he writes, Scanlan adds that Appalachians still “have a right not only to demand that their land not be pillaged and their streams filled in, but also that hazardous industrial sites not be (placed) in their communities.”

Ultimately, Appalachians might want to borrow a chapter from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he says.

“I make the analogy that the folks in Appalachia need to look beyond this as a regional issue; that they have to think of larger social changes like racial discrimination and use those kinds of parallels.”

‘Housewives from Hell’
Because of its conspicuously brutal footprint, mountaintop removal indeed has succeeded in turning hundreds of thousands of rural Appalachians—who would never describe themselves as environmentalists—into ardent and highly vocal foes of the practice. In September 2010, more than 100 protesters were arrested when they brought their anti-mountaintop-removal message to the capitol steps in Washington, D.C.

The Obama Administration has resisted calls for shutting down mountaintop removal entirely, despite publicly condemning the practice and having statutory and executive power necessary to stop it. Last January, the administration buoyed environmentalists’ hopes on the issue by retroactively revoking an EPA-awarded permit for a large mountaintop-removal project in Logan County, West Virginia.  But the pace of change on the issue remains slow, frustrating mountaintop-removal foes who blame Washington’s formidable coal industry lobby for the president’s foot-dragging on the issue.

Mountaintop removal isn’t the only environmental issue prompting protests in the Appalachian region. Citizen outrage over the health threats posed by coal-fired power plants, chemical factories, and hazardous waste facilities has taken on a decidedly maternalistic tone.

In research for the book’s section “In Their Own Words,” Mountains co-editor Morrone discovered six activists—all mothers—who have devoted much of their lives to doing whatever they can to keep children, including their own, safe from environmental hazards. In “Housewives from Hell,” a chapter she co-wrote with former student Wren Kruse, she describes how these women share the same hopes, fears, and frustrations that come from being largely poor, under-educated, politically unsophisticated, and forced to live amid often frightful environmental carnage.

Yet they understand clearly what’s at stake in their communities—jobs, or at least the promise of jobs—and what citizens are willing to do or say to get them. This risky equation goes to the heart of their most common denominator—where do the lives and health of the communities’ children factor into the discussion?

That question is the motivation for activist Suzanne Wisdom, a member of an environmental organization working to the eliminate mercury emissions at the Olin Corporation’s Chlor Alkali industrial bleach plant in Charleston, Tennessee. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children have been advised to avoid consuming largemouth bass from the river near the plant because of mercury contamination.

Caroline Beidler has protested the Eramet manganese refinery in Marietta, Ohio, over concerns that high levels of the compounds can affect neurological development in children. She describes the high numbers of small kids with asthma in her community, including those who need daily treatments with breathing machines.

And mom Lisa Crawford took up the cause against a uranium enrichment plant in Ohio after learning that her well water may have been contaminated by the pollutant over the course of several years. “I was extremely scared for my husband and I, and also for our little boy at the time … There was this really big fear of how is this going to affect my child, how is it going to affect me if I want to have another child,” she tells Morrone and Kruse.

Morrone describes the women she interviewed as “fearless,” linked by an ironclad maternal instinct and an empathy for mothers throughout Appalachia who constantly worry about what toxins in the water, air, and soil may be putting their children at risk for the rest of their lives. They all share a mistrust of both industry and government officials and often are frustrated by a sense of powerlessness. None of them consider themselves environmentalists in the strictest sense of the term, Morrone found. Collectively, they are simply unaffiliated—and highly dedicated—moms on a mission.

“Mothers will do whatever it takes to protect their children and most won’t stand for unfair treatment in any aspect of their children’s lives,” Morrone writes. “The combination of protectionism and demand for justice makes women in general, and mothers in specific, a group of environmental activists to reckon with.”

Landscapes of Consumption

From any standpoint one can name—social, political, economic, religious, cultural—life in rural Appalachia has contributed enormously to the fascinating storyline of America’s ascent from colonial times. A cautionary note in Mountains of Injustice is that instead of being isolated from the rest of the country as many might think—and even more might want us to think—the region is more connected to the nation than it’s ever been.

Millions of utility customers around the country, for example, can thank the coal companies operating all the way from Pennsylvania to Alabama for either all or a major portion of their power. The vast majority of those customers live in cities that would shut down overnight without their connection to the coal-streaked hills of Appalachia.

The message of Mountains offers a new appreciation for how the urban-born concept of environmental injustice now manifests itself in the myriad, out-of-the-way hamlets of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. But the book also shows how artificial the line is between urban and rural environmental inequities. In fact, regardless of how such inequities are defined—either as the result of racism, classism, or simply a benign indifference to the environment—the dynamics of both are joined at the hip. Buckley puts it this way in the book’s preface: “Our landscapes of consumption and landscapes of production are inextricably intertwined.”

By Frank Stephenson

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.

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