Dying a Slow Death

By now everyone knows that in the face of global climate change, the United States must do at least two big things. We have to stop burning gasoline for our personal transportation, and we have to stop burning coal to make our electricity. A change in the way Americans move from place to place will affect almost all of us. But leaving coal behind may not, unless we live in Central Appalachia.

In the place where West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee converge, coal has been king since the late 1800s. And an entire way of life is built upon a love-hate relationship with the black, smoky stuff. Coal has brought Appalachian people the only meager glimpses of prosperity they’ve seen. But coal mining has also taken many lives—through accidents and through the slow death of black lung. Now the coal industry is taking away the landscape that formed the Appala­chian people and their culture. Increasing­ly, coal operators simply blow the tops off the mountains to scoop out the coal, leaving lifeless plateaus behind and burying more than 4,000 miles of streams under the rubble and waste.

Country singer Kathy Mattea, a West Virginian, expresses much of this story on her most recent album, Coal, a collection of classic mining songs. You can read about the rest in a new book, Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Moun­taintop Removal, from the University Press of Kentucky, edited by novelist Silas House and journalist Jason Howard.

Coal was the fuel for the first wave of the industrial revolution, and to secure their supply, robber barons swept through Appalachia buying up mineral rights. The rights came cheap because most Appalachians were still subsistence farmers, and any amount of cash looked like a windfall. Ever since those days, Appalachia has been hostage to the energy market. When coal prices go down, mines close and jobs disappear. When the price is up, life gets a little better. In her opening track, “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” Kathy Mattea sings of these cycles. The community is quieter and cleaner when the mine is closed, but the people have no money to take to town.

For decades in the coal business, the profit margin could literally be measured in human lives. It is possible to mine coal from underground in relative safety. But it is a lot cheaper to cut corners and gamble with miners’ lives. The most recent coal boom has been largely at nonunion mines, and a series of deadly disasters—from Sago, West Vir­ginia, to Crandall Canyon, Utah—shows what happens when the owners have all the power. On Coal, we hear of exploitation in “Blue Diamond Mines,” of mine disasters in “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” and of the price paid by those who stood up to the companies in “Lawrence Jones,” which tells the tale of a man gunned down during the strike depicted in the film Harlan County, U.S.A. Mattea’s version of the Merle Travis classic, “Dark as a Dungeon,” captures the strange attraction many miners feel for the underground life: “Like a fiend with his dope, or a drunkard his wine, a man will have lust for the lure of the mines.”

While fatal accidents also occur in mountaintop removal mining, nature and the people who live downhill are paying the heaviest price. Even as the smoke from coal-fired utility plants heats the environment and raises sea levels, the process of scraping coal from the earth has already destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of the oldest and most biodiverse forest in North America.

In Something’s Rising, we read about children playing on creek bottoms coated with carcinogens and in streams full of dead fish. But we also hear about ordinary Appalachian people overcoming fear and fatalism to stand up for their homes and for God’s creation, founding organizations with names such as Christians for the Mountains and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

One of the most hopeful voices in Something’s Rising is that of Nathan Hall, a young Kentuckian who left underground mining to study business at Berea College with the goal of establishing a biofuel business in the mountains. As the book demonstrates, more and more Appalachians realize that the future of the mountains, and the planet, depends on finding a way for Appalachians to live without King Coal.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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