Ravaging Mountains and Lives in Coal Country: William D. Cohan

June 7 (Bloomberg) -- Sometimes an injustice is so unconscionable that nothing short of a metaphorical call to arms will suffice to right it. We have reached that point at Coal River Mountain, in the heart of West Virginia coal country, where Massey Energy Co. is slowly but surely blowing the top off the mountain. And the much-needed call to arms is a new documentary film, “The Last Mountain.”

In its quest to get at the coal, Massey -- which last week sold itself to Alpha Natural Resources Inc. for more than $7 billion -- seems to have little regard for either the environment or the lives of the people in the valleys below these mountains, both of which are rapidly being ruined. (Massey also owns the mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, where 29 miners died after an explosion in April 2010.)

The physical destruction is cleverly hidden from easy viewing by rows of trees along many West Virginia highways. But “The Last Mountain” reveals the scarred landscape from above, filmed from a helicopter. The hideous gashes to the otherwise stunning mountain landscape have to be seen to be believed.

In the past decade, since the George W. Bush administration amended a few choice words in the Clean Water Act, coal companies have destroyed around 500 Appalachian mountains by literally taking their tops off. While the companies are then supposed to undertake reclamation projects that will either restore the land or put it to new economic use, a study by the National Resources Defense Council found that 90 percent of the sites had “no form of verifiable post-mining economic reclamation.”

Mountaintop Removal

Massey claims that mountaintop removal is the “most economical” way to get the coal and that, in any event, as nearly half of the electricity used in this country comes from burning coal -- 30 percent of which comes from Appalachia -- Americans had better get used to it.

“I don’t think people understand where electricity comes from; I think most people feel like it’s an entitlement,” Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, explains as the film opens. He continues, with heavy sarcasm: “It’s contained in the Bill of Rights somewhere, and everybody is entitled to it. And we don’t need to worry about where it comes from, because every time I flip the switch, it comes on.””

Coal River Mountain, one of the last peaks in its area yet to be scalped, is now in Massey’s sights and the excavation there has begun. As repugnant as destroying mountaintops is, according to the film, the coal companies operating in West Virginia have also ruined a million acres of forest, buried 2,000 miles of streams, and contaminated thousands of miles more of waterways with cancer-causing heavy metals and other pollutants. Clearly, this must stop, and soon.

Economic Policy

“Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy, if we want to measure our economy based upon how it produces jobs and the dignity of jobs over the generations and over the long term,” says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental lawyer and activist. “If on the other hand, we want to do what Massey Coal and the big industry wants us to do, which is to treat the planet as if it were a business in liquidation, convert our natural resources, including the State of West Virginia, to cash as quickly as possible, have a few years of pollution-based prosperity, we can generate an instantaneous cash flow, and the illusion of a prosperous economy, but our children are going to pay for our joy ride.”

Ghost Towns

As the documentary makes clear, the children and grown-ups of West Virginia are paying a high price. One hamlet after another is being turned into a ghost town as jobs dry up and pollution from coal mining makes the water in local aquifers and streams undrinkable. “The coal company’s ultimate goal is to depopulate these valleys and turn them into wastelands,” explains Maria Gunnoe, a local resident, in the film. “And, quite honestly, they’ve got a good start. I can recall, right off the top of my head, 25 communities that has been depopulated.”

Then there is the extremely high incidence of rare forms of cancer. Jennifer Hall-Massey, from the town of Prenter explains in the film how in one small cluster of mobile homes there were six cases of brain cancer, including that of her 29-year-old brother. Three teachers at Marsh Fork Elementary School, which is adjacent to a coal-loading silo owned by a Massey subsidiary, died of cancer. Coal dust continuously flies off conveyor belts and gets into the air breathed in the school.

Also nearby is an impoundment lake containing 2.8 billion gallons of sludge -- the waste created by washing coal before it gets shipped to the power plants -- rife with toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and uranium.

Hornet’s Nest

“You can’t believe it,” says Michael Schnayerson, a Vanity Fair writer who has chronicled much of this destruction. “I mean, it’s this huge, almost like hornet’s nest, that’s sitting over the school. And, there is no doubt that a serious leak would, if it happened, wipe those kids out.” (Thanks to the persistence of the community, a new school is being built to replace Marsh Fork.)

Residents in the small communities around Coal Mountain are bound and determined to take a final stand with Massey over Coal Mountain. Instead of taking the top off the mountain to get at the coal underneath, some propose placing a windmill farm on the ridges of the mountain, which they claim would not only create jobs but also increase tax revenue and supply electricity to more than 70,000 homes. Yes, wind farms have yet to prove themselves as an alternative energy source. But the residents are serious enough about the idea that they paid for the feasibility study themselves.

America’s Coal Connection

“Coal is mean,” concludes Gunnoe, who won the 2009 Goldman Prize, a top environmental award, for her efforts to stop mountaintop removal. “Coal is cruel and coal kills. And the American people need to find their position where that is. You’re connected to coal, whether you realize it or not. Everybody’s connected to this. And everybody’s causing it, and everybody’s allowing it.”

At the conclusion of a recent showing of “The Last Mountain” in New York City, Kennedy rhetorically asked the audience what the community and press reaction would be if corporations were busy taking off the tops of mountains not in West Virginia, but in the Catskills, the Berkshires or the Adirondacks. Wouldn’t the outrage be immediate and deafening?

(William D. Cohan is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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