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As U.S. Energy Companies Blow-Up Appalachian Mountaintops, the Nation's Lawmakers Yawn With Indifference

Posted: 08/26/11 05:41 PM ET

"West Virginia is the template for what happens when corporations take over democracy." ~ Environmental Activist Robert Kennedy, Jr.


Charleston, W. Va. -- Ever wondered what would happen if an invading power suddenly attacked the gorgeous, summer-green mountains of Appalachia with massive bombs that together equaled the explosive power of the Hiroshima A-bomb, each and every week?

Amazingly enough, that stark scenario is happening right now in West Virginia, with hardly a whimper of protest from federal government regulators or the state politicians in Charleston.

During the past ten years, in fact, mountaintops all across Appalachia have been blowing up one after another, creating rock-strewn "moonscapes" which now include more square miles than those contained in the entire State of Delaware.

Fact: As of July 1, 2011, more than 500 Appalachian mountaintops have been destroyed by these bombers... who are now using more than 3 million pounds of explosives each day in West Virginia alone.

An environmental catastrophe? You bet it is. Hour by hour and day by day, we're witnessing the ongoing destruction of our oldest and perhaps most beautiful mountain chain. And yet most of our politicians -- along with most of our news media -- seem to be totally unconcerned about the bombing campaign against America.

Maybe that's because the "invading powers" now blasting away at the steep ridgelines of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky aren't foreign countries, after all.

They're actually giant U.S. energy companies -- hugely powerful industries that long ago became accustomed to dictating energy policy in Washington D.C. and in the state capitals of Appalachia.

How bad is the wholesale destruction now being caused by the ruthless bombing-and-digging technique known as "mountaintop removal mining," all across the once-forested and once-life-abundant region that was America's first frontier?

To answer that question, you only have to look at the most recent data from the state and federal environmental agencies. Those data show how hundreds of surface-mining sites located along the Appalachian range have been attacked with high explosives in recent years... so that mega-sized mining machines can go in later and scoop up the coal and then hustle it off to market.

"What they're doing is illegal," says environmental activist Robert Kennedy, Jr., a longtime opponent of Appalachian mountaintop mining as practiced by companies like Massey and Pittston. "If you blew up a mountain in the Berkshires or the Catskills or California or Utah, you would go to jail."

Like Robert Kennedy, the conservation-minded Sierra Club has been fighting this destructive mining technique in recent years, while frequently pointing out that it "has destroyed forests on some 300 square miles of land, disrupted drinking water supplies, flooded communities and destroyed wildlife habitat."

But the mountaintops aren't the only areas which take a daily beating in Appalachia.

In recent years, the thunderous explosions that are the key to mountaintop removal mining (they can send up to 800 feet of rock flying skyward on a single blast) have buried more than 2,500 miles of Appalachian rivers and streams beneath a tsunami of pulverized stone and earth -- much of it tainted with toxic refuse from underground coal mines.

That's right: We're looking at 2,500 miles of once-upon-a-time-pristine creeks and rivers that are now totally choked with mining rubble, all across Appalachia.

And there's more: according to a major study just published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Community Health: The Publication for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, the cancer rate among people living beside a West Virginia mountaintop removal site in recent years was twice as high as the rate among those living a safe distance away from the site. The bottom line on that disturbing study: at least 60,000 cases of mining-linked, above-the-norm cancer can be expected among the 1.2 million West Virginians who live near these mining sites in West Virginia, within the next few decades.

So where's the outcry?

Why aren't the senators and the congressional reps from places like West Virginia and Kentucky raising holy hell in the echoing hallways of the Senate and the House?

The answer isn't hard to find.

They've all been bought off... by the big-money lobbyists and the super-rich campaign contributors who now run the U.S. Government.

And that's a real tragedy -- not only for the people who live on the land in Appalachia, but also for the people who used to work there.

Because mountaintop removal doesn't just destroy the landscape; it also destroys mining jobs.

Some background: In the past, the energy company satraps always claimed that they were "providing jobs and helping the economy" -- a vitally important fact which they insisted gave them a license to destroy the mountains and valleys that our grandchildren will inherit.

But the "jobs argument" dried up a long time ago. As the statisticians at the U.S. Department of Labor have often pointed out, this new form of "vampire-mining" doesn't actually provide any new jobs.

Instead, it destroys them.

Since 1980, for example, while coal production in West Virginia increased by 140 percent, more than 40,000 coal mining jobs have actually disappeared... with perhaps half of them lost to mountaintop removal mining.

The data are frightening enough. But it's even scarier to jump in your car and head for Charleston and regions south... where you'll soon find yourself wandering among the new ghost towns and the ruined watersheds of a world we're rapidly bombing back to the Stone Age.

And why are we doing that? The answer is simple.

It's so that the Wall Street moguls who run America's energy industry can "maximize profits" at the expense of the rest of us.

Donald R. Soeken is a Ph.D. social worker who often counsels whistleblowers in cases involving environmental pollution. Journalist Tom Nugent is the author of Death at Buffalo Creek, W.W. Norton, a book about Appalachian coal mining.