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Stephanie Wilson
Columnist

February 23, 2005 

Patriotic Slumber

Strip Mine

In times of boredom we often find our eyes drifting across the room noticing every little detail of the world around us.  Oftentimes, we catch ourselves gazing out the window, taking note of the flora and fauna that grow with the freedom nature intended, beyond the four walls that confine us.  We have grown to trust these surroundings and seek comfort in the fact that such a serene environment is just steps away, retaining its’ natural beauty.  However, what if this land was taken from us, and the surrounding community was bought out and leveled?  What if the plants and animals we counted on to exist were completely decimated?  What if the babbling brooks were crushed under discarded mountaintops never to flow peacefully again?  This catastrophe, known as Strip mining, may sound too horrific to be true, but it’s really happening.  The Appalachian Mountain Range, “the forests where Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett roamed,” and the “frontier that cradled our democracy”(Kennedy, 114) is disappearing so quickly most of us hardly even notice and those of us that do are at a loss of what can be done about it.  The influence of the government on the media and on regulations regarding our environment is a direct betrayal of us, the citizens of the United States, and the land we live on. 

The government and coal-mining corporations boast the process of strip mining as an “efficient” way to get to the coal under the mountains’ surface.  We are made to think that this “efficiency” far outweighs any impact this can have to the environment.  After all, coal is important to our economy and lifestyles, so what is the problem if just a few mountains lose their tops?  This massacre of mountaintops, forests, streams, and the leveling their surrounding communities, however, isn’t localized to just a couple of mountains.  It’s been estimated that this process has “interred 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams, polluted the region’s groundwater and rivers, and rendered 400,000 acres of some of the world’s most biologically rich temperate forests into flat, barren wastelands” (Kennedy, 115).  If things continue at the pace they are currently going, an area the size of Delaware, roughly 2,200 square miles, will be left as a bleak landscape in one decade.

Yet, the United States seems to be in a “patriotic slumber” as these mountains are blown away.  While most of us already have disagreements with the government in one way or another, we often turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed on the environment.  We would hope that government officials would at least care about the people of the United States and consider us more important than profit.  If this weren’t the case, we would hope that we’d at least hear about it.  However, this simply isn’t true.  The horrors overseas or domestic social issues distract us from the environment.  “Of the 15,000 minutes of network news [in 2002]… only 4 percent was devoted to the environment” (Kennedy175).  Even that 4 percent was “consumed by human-interest stories,” not topics like strip mining (Kennedy 176).  The saying “if it bleeds, it leads” appears to hold true.  Terrorism, wars, and car chases dominate almost every major station.  Each issue is important to someone, of course, but if the environment is destroyed there won’t be anyone alive to care.

Despite its low coverage in the news, Strip mining has been a topic of discussion for the government for many decades. During the Carter Administration laws were passed to protect national forests and parks, as well as forests on private lands.  The only exceptions are those who “hold a valid and existing right to the coal” (qtd. in Schneider, “Open National Forests”).  They may do what they please with that coal and the surrounding habitat. This passage was meant to settle the battle over the coal once and for all by protecting private and public land from coal companies.  However, because of the fact that Congress never clearly defined who holds this “valid and existing right,” attempts have been made to define it by coal companies in ways that benefited themselves.  Though it has been struck down numerous times by judges, the current definition of “valid and existing right” gives the right to “any coal owner who had sought to mine the coal up to the day the law was established, on Aug. 3, 1977” (Schneider, “Open National Forests”).

This definition, obviously, benefits the coal companies.  It particularly benefits those who have been around for decades and let’s them find loopholes to exploit the land without any compensation to the current owners, whether they are private citizens or the public in general.  Any company who sought land before that date can mine anywhere including national parks, national forests, and private property.  The idea that anybody’s land can be taken from them without a dime in exchange only adds to the nightmare at hand.  Fortunately enough, people spoke out about this with some prominent figures including the chief spokesman for the Department of the Interior, Steven Goldstein, who said "We view this new policy as an affirmation of the Fifth Amendment and a correct interpretation of the surface-mining law” (qtd. Schneider, “Blocked”).  Taking land without any just compensation is illegal; therefore, the definitions that coal companies produced are impossible for the government to recognize.  The days of people’s private property being taken from them has ended.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the horror.  Instead of merely taking the land out from underneath people, the companies buy out entire communities.  This has happened to several dozen towns in the Appalachians.  According to most judges, this is perfectly legal as there is “just compensation” in the form of money.  Some residents, however, simply don’t want to sell their land.  They hold out as long as they can, but are forced to sell due to intimidation by the companies whose activities make the environment nearly impossible to live in. Life near these mountains is absolutely miserable.  The cracking of dynamite, the screeching of the dump trucks, and the buzzing of the chainsaws combined with poisoned groundwater, disappearing streams and valleys, leveled trees, and irritating clouds of dust have made living in the Appalachians more wretched than living near a landfill.  Those residents who were not bought out leave due to frustration with these conditions.  The vast majority of people give up their battle, leaving their beautiful mountain town to be leveled by these companies along with the forests and streams they once cherished.

         Our current administration has the worst track record when it comes to our environment; the issue of Strip mining is no exception.  Bush wants to “revamp a rule [that protects] streams that Appalachian environmentalists view as their best weapon for fighting the strip mining technique of mountaintop removal” (Dao).  The current rule, in place since the Reagan era, prohibits mining within 100 feet of streams and rivers.  Run-off from the machines used to mine, as well as dust from the act of mining itself, can settle into the stream and poison the water.  However, poisoning of the groundwater is only one effect strip mining has on local streams.  It also involves “dumping the leftover rubble into nearby valleys and streams. Some of those valley fills, as they are known, are hundreds of feet deep and several miles long, making them among the largest man-made earthen structures in the East” (Dao).  Judge Haden of West Virginia, a prominent figure in the fight against strip mining wrote, "[v]alley fills are waste disposal projects so enormous that, rather than the stream assimilating the waste, the waste assimilates the stream” (qtd. in Dao).  The blocking of permanent as well as seasonal streams disrupts the usual run off of the mountains in addition to taking away the beauty of the forests.

         The effects of strip mining even extend beyond the vast mountain ranges.  “King Coal sends more greenhouse gases into the air and more mercury and acid rain into our earth and produces more lung-searing ozone and particulates than any other industry” (Kennedy 117).  Though there are many particles that assist in global warning, the main one of concern is CO2.  “For the last 10,000 years, we enjoyed a constant level of CO2- about 280 parts per million (ppm)- until about 100 years ago when we began to burn more coal and oil… [which caused it to rise] to 370 ppm- a concentration this planet has not experienced in 420,000 years” (Motavalli 3).  In this process of retrieving, refining, and using coal, large amounts of this particle are released into our environment.  When these particles react with one another they begin to vibrate which causes global warming (Lay).  The effects of global warming have already been witnessed in melting glaciers, record heat, and cataclysmic storms all across the globe.  Though the process of strip mining isn’t the only factor in the creation of global warming, it is a key contributor.  The more it occurs the more the globe will suffer.

One must stop and wonder, why is it that most of the citizens of the United States are oblivious to such a horrific process?  Why is it that those of us who are aware seem powerless to stop it?  The environment belongs to everyone and it’s the most important aspect to our survival.  So, why is it that a few people, executives of some large energy corporations mainly, are destroying it and dooming our future?  The answers are depressing.  The public figures who we are supposed to trust the most with the decisions to keep our nation strong and our citizens healthy are the ones granting these companies permission to destroy our environment.  That, sadly, is the President of the United States and his cabinet along with many more who hold powerful positions in our government.

         We can easily set the blame for our ignorance on the media.  However, we tend to overlook that the media reports on what it is fed by other sources.  When giving a speech or answering questions in a press conference, Bush has a habit of only paying attention to scientific studies that benefit him and his corporate pals.  They are “suppressing studies, purging scientists, and doctoring data to bamboozle the public and the press” (Kennedy 76). If a scientific study comes out that somehow harms their business in any way they simply say, “more study is needed” and “find scientists willing to hoodwink the people” (Kennedy 77). This faulty information is fed to the press and they don’t want to report on something that might “sort of be dangerous, maybe” so they pass it up.  An explosion in Fallujah or a suicide bomber in Gaza is more exciting and is talked about more by those in charge than a mere “climate change.” 

         The reason for the set of lies should be obvious to any observer, but it seems to slip under most people’s radar.  If Bush were to let laws pass that would prohibit strip mining or in anyway damage the corporations’ profits, he would lose $20 million in donations to his campaign and other republican campaigns across the country (Kennedy 117).  Besides these donations, Bush would also lose money through his own business endeavors.  While the oil industry and coal industry are two different things, a lot of times regulations put them under the umbrella of the “energy industry”.  Regulations such as the output of CO2 mentioned earlier affect both.  The Bush family is well known for their oil ties in Texas and around the world.  Any constraints on them would cause Bush and his kin to lose money.  Bush isn’t the only person in Washington with ties to the energy industry though.  “Thirty-one of the Bush transition team’s 48 members had energy-industry ties” (Kennedy 96).  With numbers like that, it’s no wonder the exploitation of the environment is able to continue.

         In order to make strip mining seem necessary to keep around, government officials and executives “warn of economic ruin” for the people in West Virginia and Kentucky because “28,000 miners now at work in the $6.3 billion industry [of strip mining]…  [and] hundreds of millions [of dollars] in state revenue and profits in related industry,” ( qtd in Clines) could be at stake if laws were passed to limit strip mining or stop it altogether.  The words “economic ruin” strike fear in the hearts of locals prompting them to side with industry in order to keep the money in the area flowing.  At least that’s their goal.  Once industry settles into place the towns in the area that aren’t bought out go into financial ruin.  Judy Bonds, a resident in Marfork Hollow in West Virginia, recounts her experience: “We only have one grocery store where we used to have four.  And you can walk through the little town and see that most of the buildings are boarded up because the businesses failed and the young people have left the area” (qtd in Kennedy 116).  Thousands of miners lose their jobs to machines in the industry as well.  The only people to actually profit are the industry executives and those whom they support, our current leaders.

         Our government has betrayed us in the worst of ways.  It has sold our environment out for profit.  In doing so they’ve destroyed the lives of hundreds of people, devastated thousands of miles of our historical forests, mountains, and streams, all while worsening the worldwide problem of global warming.  We have been left in a state of complete ignorance of this due to the poor sources available to our media.  The government has manipulated the media and, in turn, manipulated us.  They want us to believe what they are doing is good for the masses economically, yet ignore the devastating economic impact on the small mountain communities.  By ignoring scientific facts about the effect this is having on the environment, they hope to “hoodwink” us and make a profit.  With such control of the media they are succeeding.  As citizens of the United States and residents of this planet we need to wake up to the horrors that have been and continue to be committed to our planet by our own government and take action.  Ignoring it will only lead to disaster and the end of the human race.

 

WORK CITED:

 

Clines, Francis X.  “Judge takes on the White House in Mountaintop Mining.”  The New York Times.  May 19 2002: pg 18.

Dao, James.  “Rule change may alter strip mining fight.”  The New York Times.  January 26, 2004: A14. 

“Decapitating Appalachia.” Editorial.  The New York Times.  January 13, 2004: A24.

Kennedy Jr., Robert F.  Crimes Against Nature.  New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Lay, Thorne.  “Climate in the Cinema.”  Classroom Unit 001 UCSC, Santa Cruz.  February 28, 2005.

Motavalli, Jim.  Feeling the Heat.  New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

Schneider, Keith.  “US Set to open national forests for strip mining.”  The New York Times.  September 28, 2002: A1.

---. “President’s plan for national parks is blocked.”  The New York Times.  October 3, 1992: pg 7.

 

 

 


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