It’s the July 4 weekend. I’m standing on top of what’s left of Kayford Mountain in the heart of West Virginia, listening to the fabulously named Hoot Gibson. He’s a stocky old miner wearing a Peabody Coal cap and the kind of immovable expression that’s seen everything. He’s describing how the mountain range all around has been disappearing, year after year, blast after blast since the late 1980s as coal mining’s latest stab at devastation – mountaintop removal – obliterates the landscape. Faith doesn’t move mountains here. Dynamite and pliant judges do.
Gibson used to watch the sun rise above an adjacent peak that rose 3,200 feet. The peak is gone, flattened out of existence, its remains, with coal extraction’s toxic by-products (mercury, lead, copper, arsenic, chromium) burying communities, streams, forest and wildlife below. The Gibson family’s 50 acres used to occupy some of the lowest hollows of Kayford. Now they’re the highest. If Massey Energy has its way, the very ground we’re standing on – the last of Kayford Mountain, at 2,400 feet – would be gone so the company could get at five rich coal seams below and link up the blast site with the moonscape all around.
Every year for the past two decades, Larry Gibson, the 72-year-old patriarch of the clan, has hosted a music festival on Kayford – folk, rock, country. The music isn’t the point. Drawing attention to one of the country’s largest-scale, best-concealed environmental disasters is. What’s happening on Kayford Mountain is happening all over immense swaths of Appalachian hardwood forest. It draws little attention because it’s West Virginia, whose rape is an American routine, and because the devastation is, by design, out of sight. You drive near it on the highway, but it’s always over the ridge. If you have no business with coal companies, it takes long hikes, plane rides or satellite views to see the turning of Appalachia inside out. (Or you can search for “mountaintop removal” on YouTube.)
Why should we care? That the question has to be asked is in part the reason why Appalachia’s destruction accelerated – first with the blessing of the Bush administration, then that of the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, now with that of the Obama administration: Not enough people care to stop it. Why should Appalachian mountains be different than protecting, say, Florida’s shore or Alaska’s Arctic refuge? Proximity or the likelihood that we’d ever visit a place doesn’t make it more or less valuable. Its existence does. Besides, acre for acre, wildlife for wildlife, mountaintop removal in West Virginia is more destructive and toxic than expanded oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, had that gone ahead, with one difference: West Virginia’s destruction isn’t theoretical. It’s happening now. All that before an ounce of coal is burned, triggering a whole other set of environmental damage.
We’re all, Floridians included, responsible. We want our electricity. About a third of Florida’s electricity (and almost half the country’s) is generated from coal. But if coal is essential to produce electricity, demolishing mountains isn’t essential to producing coal. Nor does it make electricity cheaper. It multiplies profits for coal producers, who need a fraction of deep-mining’s labor force to blow off mountains and scoop the loot. It doesn’t make West Virginia richer, either. McDowell County has produced more coal than any other county in West Virginia. It’s also the poorest in the state (and the 28th poorest in the country, out of 3,145). McDowell’s rescue: a $225 million federal prison, compliments of Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s pork farm. Maybe that’s what’s in Kayford Mountain’s future – a federal prison like McDowell’s, or like the 864-cell monster recently built on top of what was left of another mountain lopped-off for coal, in Inez, Kentucky, the town Lyndon Johnson chose to kick off his war on poverty in 1964. That’s what they call “reclamation” of mined-out mountains in Appalachia.
And all for what, considering that wasted energy in the United States (from leaving the lights on to running the AC on vacation) amounts to the equivalent of Canada’s entire energy use? A report released last week by the McKinsey consulting firm (mckinsey.com) concludes that the country could save $1.2 trillion in the next 10 years by investing $520 billion in realistic energy efficiency. If it takes dynamite and greed to move mountains, it may take something simpler than faith to save them: a light switch.