Almost Hell West Virginia; Where Is The Obama Administration?

07/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Denver's lyrics "Almost Heaven West Virginia" described the beauty of the Appalachian mountains, one of America's and the world's greatest natural treasures. Vast areas of those same mountains now are a landscape from Hell, as far from Heaven as one can imagine. For the past few days I have had the privilege to be in the Appalachian mountains around Coal River Valley, West Virginia with Daryl Hannah to protest the greatest unnatural disaster in the history of the United States. Most Americans are unaware of Mountain Top Removal Mining (MTR) and the consequences of this insane way of mining coal. Thirty one of us were arrested -- including Daryl and our friend Dr. James Hansen, who is one of the world's preeminent climate scientists -- in an effort to bring this to the public's attention and demand that the Obama administration and Congress pass legislation to permanently ban Mountain Top Removal Mining. It is time for President Obama to visit Coal River Valley and view this tragedy in person. Daryl Hannah's Video of Coal River Mountain MTR Sites

The impact upon witnessing the destruction to the Appachian Mountains is visceral. Not having been on the ground in this lush American forest before -- one of the two most biologically diverse forests in the world -- my heart broke and my eyes filled with tears as local scientist Scott Simonton flew Daryl, myself, and Coal River Watch activist Benji Webb over a small area of the vast Mountain Top Removal (MTR) sites which now have destroyed over 2,000,000 acres of our nation's Appalachian forest -- more than 12% -- and buried over 3000 miles of streams and headwaters . I had seen the pictures. I used Google Earth to see the region from satellite images. But nothing can prepare you for scale of complete devastation. No living thing survives MTR.

Daryl Hannah & James Hansen at Marsh Fork Elementary

The toxic sludge produced from cracking the coal during processing has created tremendous bodies of toxic liquid waste, well over 100 billion gallons held back by nothing more substantial than walls of dirt presenting area residents with an ever-present apocalyptic threat far exceeding that of a nuclear holocaust during the cold war. The people below -- including the students and teachers at Marsh Fork Elementary -- have four minutes to evacuate before certain death swallows them whole, and there is no evacuation plan in any event. The federal government -- this includes the Obama administration along with the EPA and the Department of Interior -- clearly understand that when disaster occurs as a result of Mountain Top Removal Mining death is assured; resistance at that point futile, contingency plans a ludicrous joke. Those who refuse to surrender to this altogether evil pursuit of profit at any cost and remain are no more than additional debris to be buried with the rock, shale, and heavy metals in the once lush green valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. Almost Hell, West Virginia.

These MTR sights are almost entirely out of view from the ground by design. From the air they cover the landscape in all directions, scars across the land which if they were able to bleed, would send a river of blood cascading throughout the land. With spring and summer a few "reclaimed" sights are sprayed green until the rains come washing away the thin layer of vegetation which can not survive on the rubble left behind. Trees on these sites, which Don Blankenship and Massey proudly offer up with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (an agency dedicated to the exact opposite of its mandate) as proof of their good intentions, grow a few feet in height at best and perish. Chernobyl will recover faster than this great American Forest.

This entirely unnecessary ecological disaster is the brainchild of Massey Energy's Don Blankenship. The Bush administration gave Blackenship and Massey Energy a green light to pursue Mountain Top Removal on a scale that knows virtually no limits. For Massey, MTR is the preferred method for mining coal as it is far less expensive than underground or even strip mining methods. The unions have been broken, 75% of the miners have lost their jobs, towns boarded up and the communities of Appalachia destroyed.

In West Virginia alone over 3.5 million pounds of explosives are used per day, 300 days a year (the 4th of July or Sundays are the only respite). Massey energy blasts the tops off mountains to expose the coal buried inside. Rocks fall like rain from the sky terrorizing residents in the valleys below and the force of the explosions literally causes homes to collapse. Massey is nothing if not generous, they purchase the one or two now worthless properties from the families closest to the MTR for pennies on the dollar. The locals further down from the sites then hold their tongues anticipating Massey will buy them out as the ruble and blasting moves ever closer to them. This never happens. Eventually, as the explosions above tear the sky and earth to pieces, walls separate, windows shatter and the structures begin to fail. The terrorized people whose ancestors settled the region long ago ultimately leave. Massey then burns their homes to the ground at no additional charge. Don Blankenship, neighbor and friend at your service. If you are very lucky, they might relocate the remains of your departed family members from the plot in your back yard. Or not.

This is the great American tragedy, and every citizen of this country should be ashamed and horrified that we are collectively allowing this to happen. If you use electricity in the US chances are good that some of it is supplied by a coal-fired electric plant burning Massey coal from what once was a mountain in West Virginia. One 76 year old woman who had lived in the same house her entire life when the full force of Massey Energy's (Don Blankenship) corporate might was brought to bear on her. She fell dead on the steps leaving her home when it was too much to bear any longer. Almost Heaven -- West Virginia.

Coal mining has never been a clean business or pretty. It has a long history of disasters, violent labor disputes, health and safety concerns, and so on. But in the last decade as MTR has been pursued aggressively across the Appalachian mountains, it has gotten much worse. For all intents and purposes it is a criminal enterprise that endangers the health and welfare of the entire nation. The industry arguments and fear tactics are old, worn, and irrelevant to everyone but the West Viginia DEP, Massey Energy, and its employees.

Bo Webb who has been actively fighting to end Mountain Top Removal was giving us a tour and explaining that coal trucks always travel in pairs. This ensures the company has a reliable witness on hand whenever there is an accident on the two lanes roads which snake through the valleys and hollers. The tucks are notoriously overloaded and speeding, and very big. Day and night the miners, their trucks, and coal roll though the valleys and hollers. I am still not clear on exactly what a holler is but it involves streams and a tradition of neighbors hollering up and down the forest. And moonshine; shine is important to ease some of the pain in Hell's Holler.

Bo Webb knows this well. Just before departing for the airport Keith Porterfield from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection called to inform Bo and his family that Massey would be resuming blasting operations above his home. The Federal Office of Surface Mining had found Massey in violation and issued 4 citations when they recently inspected the site above the Webb home after Kieth Porterfield and the WV DEP refused to do so. Now it seems the WV Department of Environmental Protection has decided Massey can clean up the previous illegal debris by blasting further down the mountain so that they can then access the area. Naturally, this process has no end. Bo exclaimed loudly in disbelief, "Are you trying to kill me?"
Almost Heaven, West Virginia; welcome to Coal River Valley.
Benji & Bo Webb