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Making the Connection
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by Jim Sconyers | 2008

[Note to readers: This is intended to be what might be called a “reality check.”]

Everything Is Connected - In theWestVirginia Coal Fields

No one said it any better than Sierra Club founder John Muir: “Everything is connectedto everything else.”

Let’s talk about connections. As a former math teacher, let me phrase the connections in “if this, then that” form. Youmight remember that from some long-forgotten high school math class. The idea is, the second thing follows if the first thing occurs.

Here’s our first “If this, then that.”


You flip on the light switch in your home.


Another mountaintop blows up in southern West Virginia.

It’s an ugly equation, but sadly true. As the Pogo comic strip said in an earlier, prescient, decade, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

OK, this is a reality check, not a guilt trip. Here’s the reality. This used to be a beautiful forested West Virginia mountain. Now it’s been blasted into industrial waste. The mountain is gone, along with the streams below that were buried under millions of tons of rock.  Peaceful Appalachian mountain valleys - our famous “hollers” - are filled with rocks and debris.

“Welcome ToHell”

This process is repeated hundreds of times across southernWest Virginia. It takes 3,000,000 pounds of explosives each day (no, that’s not a typo - 3 million, each day).

Here’s our next “If this, then that.”

This: The mountaintops are blown away and the streams are buried and the valleys are filled with waste.

That: All hell breaks loose. Where to start.....?

If the mountaintops are blown away and the streams are buried and the valleys are filled with waste, then:

· A natural ancient forested mountain disappears and a shorter, human-sculpted grassland is made to replace it. The soil is gone, and the forest will never return - it can’t.

· Family home places and century-old communities are stressed, destroyed, bought out, burned down.

· Traditional life-styles are made untenable: no more hunting, gathering of native herbs, quiet visits with neighbors.

· People’s wells go dry or are poisoned.

· Homes, cars, and communities are covered with dirty coal dust - every day.

· Children go home from school sick.

· Communities are flooded, and homes ruined, and people killed, over and over.

· Anxiety twists in residents’ minds as they live with the threat of gigantic slurry ponds looming above their homes.

The folks of Dorothy, Kayford, Blair, Sylvester, and any number of coalfield communities live with these consequences of mountaintop removal coal mining every day of their lives. They are fighting back, but it is obviously an uphill battle. They’re the Davids; Massey, Consol, and the other coal corporate giants are the Goliaths.

Landscape toMoonscape

Observers of mountaintop removal are often at a loss for the language to describe the devastation. Reaching for a metaphor, they often say that the process turns the beautiful West Virginia mountain forest landscape into a moonscape - but frankly this is an affront to the moon! The metaphor is simply inadequate.

Mountaintop removal has already destroyed hundreds of square miles of our mountains, and buried more than a thousand miles of pristine streams. The moonscape left behind bears no resemblance to a natural landscape. Mountains are lowered or eliminated. Natural contours are erased and redrawn by bulldozers. Soil is eradicated. Real forest can never grow back.

Shame of the Nation

Mountaintop removal mining is the shame of the nation. Why? Because the nation feels comfortable asking West Virginians to make these awful sacrifices for the sake of cheap electric power. Some people call West Virginia an “energy sacrifice zone.” A friend told me she thought we should ask the governor to change the text on the welcoming signs at the state line: “Welcome to West Virginia, Land of the Expendables.” Larry Gibson of Kayford Mountain shares the experience of being told that folks like him are “collateral damage,” unfortunate perhaps but necessary.

Thus far every change in regulation or mining technique has been for the worse. As you read this the BushWhite House is trying to ram through rule changes that would make it even easier to destroy our streams.

And like so much of environmental destruction, it’s all about the Benjamins - money, that is. Even if we were to accept the premise that coal is a necessary evil until the transition to renewable green energy is complete, mountaintop removal would still not be essential. Remember the “good old days” of coalmining - before mountaintop removal was invented in the late 1980s? Yes, you may have heard - millions of tons of coal were mined in underground mines, and more than 100,000 miners earned a good living. Of course, underground mining has its environmental problems too - but nothing like the devastation of mountaintop removal.

You guessed it - mountaintop removal is more “efficient.” Now fewer than 20,000 miners get the same amount of coal out. Jobs are eliminated along with the mountains, and the coal companies sweeten their bottom lines beautifully.

What’sMy Connection?

If you live in the coalfields, you know what I’m talking about. But many of us do not live there. Maybe you live in the Panhandles, or the Highlands, or somewhere else where you don’t experience the destruction firsthand. But as a Mountaineer, perhaps you feel that you can identify with, and sympathize with, our brothers and sisters in the “sacrifice zone” who bear the burden directly.

What can we do? If you would like to become involved withWest Virginia Sierra Club mountaintop removal and other coal-related initiatives, please contact Energy Chair Jim Kotcon ( or Conservation Chair Jim Sconyers ( We are just now working to ramp up Chapter involvement.

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