If Tennessee Ernie Ford were to sing his blue-collar anthem "Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get?" to the residents of the coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia, they would answer: property damage, dried up wells, respiratory illness, and explosions 100 times more powerful than the Oklahoma City bombing.
The latest technique in strip mining—mountaintop removal—involves detonating explosives to blow apart the top 1,000 acres of a mountain and using a dragline (a mammoth bulldozer) to dig away the soil and reveal seams of coal. The excess dirt is then deposited in valley fills, mountain streams that support the regional ecosystems as well as providing area residents with a source of water.
This is the latest of the ongoing battles for economic survival in the mountain communities of central Appalachia. In the last 40 years, the number of coal-industry jobs in coal-rich states such as West Virginia has dropped from 138,000 to 16,000, while the amount of coal mined annually is the highest ever. With the steady decline in jobs and the increase in the threat to the visual legacy of the mountains, citizens are fighting to take back their mountains—and their futures.
In Harlan County, Kentucky, citizens organized a local chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) to stop mountaintop removal. Robert Gipe, an organizer with KFTC, said the group asked themselves what the pivotal issue was. "We found a strategy that gives citizens something to do," Gipe said. They drafted a "Lands Unsuitable for Mining" petition to declare Black Mountain a public land trust. By focusing their efforts around protecting the state’s highest peak, the group was able to draw greater public attention to the extent of mountaintop removal in eastern Kentucky.