`Nothing will grow there'

Mining: Appalachian coal companies say mountaintop removal is essential, but opponents say it scars and strips God's country.

November 17, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WHITESBURG, Ky. -- Giant machines wipe out the trees and decapitate the mountains, turning the rolling hills of Appalachia into mounds of dirt and rock.

In the hollows below, homes tremble with each blast. Walls crack. Porches lean. Streams that once rushed with clear water are now a still, rocky soup.

These, say environmental advocates, are effects of mountaintop removal, a coal mining method that works exactly the way it sounds. And it has ignited a feud that the coal industry says will threaten its survival.

Industry representatives say that mountaintop removal, which involves shaving off a mountain's summit or carving into the side of a slope to get to the coal underneath, is an efficient mining method that later allows mined land to be turned to flatland. The property can then be used for development, creating jobs.

But the people who live nearby say the procedure, which has been in use about 20 years, is destroying the shape of Appalachia -- as well as polluting drinking water, choking streams, shrinking plant and animal habitats and marring homes.

"This kind of damage will affect my whole life, my children's life and grandchildren's life," said Patty Amburgey of Letcher County who grew up nearby and says the blasts from a nearby job site have cracked her chimney and broken her antiques and mirrors.

"It's destroying our earth, our whole total being," she said. "It breaks your heart, those trees sticking up dead. Nothing will grow there after you've destroyed the land like they're doing."

A recent federal court ruling in West Virginia that bans coal mining within 100 feet of a stream is reverberating in coal regions across the nation. In fact, industry representatives say it could nearly shut down not just mountaintop removal but coal mining altogether -- taking with it tens of thousands of jobs.

The dispute spilled into federal budget negotiations, as West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd last week attempted to hold up a budget agreement by demanding an amendment -- a demand later withdrawn -- that would nullify the court ruling.

For the coal companies, mountaintop removal is more efficient than traditional operations such as deep mining, which requires more mine workers and recovers a smaller percentage of the coal.

But for the land, the procedure is among the most invasive. Here in the hills of eastern Kentucky, which along with West Virginia is one of the nation's largest sites of mountaintop removal, deformed ridgelines are a common sight. A graceful sequence of rolling hills is suddenly interrupted by a flattened mound, giving the look of a gap-toothed grin. The debris is dumped into streams and valleys, uprooting trees and depleting fish and wildlife.

And for the people in this picturesque but poor region, mountaintop mining means frequent blasts that feel like earthquakes.

In a hollow called Dunham, an 84-year-old widow named Hattie Hall lives in a neatly kept house just below a mountaintop job run by a subsidiary of TECO Coal, where what was once a mountain peak is now a flattened mound of dirt and rocks. Atop the mountain, the job site looks like the surface of the moon.

Her kitchen ceiling is sagging, her living room window is cracked, her front porch is leaning forward, the cinderblock wall at her yard's edge tumbling into the street -- all damage, she says, from the blasts.

On her fixed income of $600 a month, she says, she has no money for repairs. "They're shaking my house to pieces," she said. "It scares me."

In Hall's neighborhood, at least eight families plan to file a class- action suit seeking damages from the company once the job is complete, said Paul Fleming, who is organizing the suit.

On another side of the job site, in a hollow known as McRoberts, Harold Gray, 49, blames blasting damage for the lumpy kitchen floor, deteriorating roof and leaning porch posts in his 3-year-old, double-wide trailer.

Eugene Williams, who lives across the street from Gray, said a couple of months ago he saw a dozen turkeys walking down the street.

"There's something wrong when wild turkeys are walking down the road in a residential area," he said. "They're blasting on one side and blasting on the other. There's nowhere else for them to go.

"It used to be you could lie in bed and couldn't hear nothing but the crickets all night long," he said.

"Now all you can hear are the bulldozers and endloaders and rock trucks. Ain't no rest for the wicked. Hell can't be much different than this."

In Ary, a group of residents has sued AEI Resources for damages, said Pauline Stacy, who has been fighting the effects of a nearby blasting site for four years. At one point her property was so covered with dust her family couldn't sit on the porch.

Some coal companies have made payments for damages to some homeowners, but other residents complain that too little has been offered.

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