You are filthy. You can taste the grit as it flies into your face, through your nostrils, hits the back of your throat and drapes your body like a gauzy pall. One dump truck passes you on a dirt road, then two, then three. You're not sure what they're filled with, but it's probably overburden, the coal industry's term for all the organic stuff that's skimmed off the top of a mountain before it's blown to dust. You wonder where you are; you thought you were in the middle of a forested mountain range. Now, it seems, you're in a twilight-zone desert. There is green on the borders — you know it's there — but you're losing it for the pockmarked ground, the burned-out earth, the utter pollution of everything that's around. A mountaintop removal coal mining operation is as difficult to hide as it is to overstate. It can cover many square miles, involves the use of explosives cocktails not unlike that which Timothy McVeigh whipped up to obliterate a federal building in 1995, makes loud noises associated with such explosions, displaces thousands of pounds of soil and rock, disrupts water supplies tapped by animals and people alike, and leaves a once-forested mountain looking like the set of a Cormac McCarthy adaptation. The highwalls — jagged cliffs that reveal layer-cake patterns of rock and coal — stretch stories high and make right angles where none should occur.
And so it's odd that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who's running in the Republican primary for Tennessee governor, would tell a small group of environmentalists, as he did recently, that no coal companies would be blowing off the tops of mountains here to cheaply and efficiently mine the seams of coal beneath.
There are four such operations right now in Tennessee, including Campbell County's Zeb Mountain, the degradation of which many have watched over the last few years. Applications for 13 more are on file at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The state boasts 53 permitted valley fills, places where overburden is dumped. The jobs could stretch as far west as the Cumberland Plateau.
As coal companies continue to drain the Appalachian regions of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia through mountaintop removal jobs, the practice has moved into Tennessee, despite the objections of some lawmakers — including state Sen. Doug Jackson and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, both of whom have sponsored legislation to curb the practice.
"For any immediate or short-term benefit that we get from mining using mountaintop removal methods, the effect is permanent," Jackson says. "And we're not talking about aesthetics. We're talking about permanent effect to the environment that causes great harm to all life forms, including people."
But for every elected official trying to ban the practice, there are more who've already been touched by the outstretched hand of King Coal.
It's not hard to find a reason to ban mountaintop removal mining.
The method, which came about in the 1960s and has been trumpeted as a safer way of mining than underground or human-driven surface approaches, has led to the contamination and burial of more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia, resulting in the permanent disappearance of certain ecosystems, mostly because the overburden from these jobs winds up in the valleys below. Mountaintop removal mining will have reduced the Appalachian mixed mesophytic forest — the most biologically diverse temperate forest on the planet — by some 2,200 square miles by 2012, according to the EPA.
While half the country's energy comes from coal, only a small percentage comes from mountaintop jobs.
"We recognize that coal is part of the fuel mix in this country and is going to be for a long time," says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Civilization has its costs, and coal is one of the costs of civilization. But it doesn't have to be as costly as [mountaintop removal] makes it."
It poisons people. According to a January article in the journal Science, groundwater samples from wells that supply residents living near mountaintop removal operations contained higher levels of dangerous mine-derived chemicals than wells from unmined areas. There are also elevated levels of hazardous dust around mountaintop removal sites. "Adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function of county-level coal production, as are rates of mortality; lung cancer; and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease," the report says, adding the caveat that men and women are equally affected, putting to rest the argument that it's just miners getting sick.
It poisons fish. Appalachian states warn their citizens not to eat fish out of local waters for fear of contamination. During a hearing last week at the Capitol for a Tennessee bill that would limit mountaintop removal jobs to peaks under 2,000 feet, Dennis Lemly, a research biologist at Wake Forest University and co-author of the Science article, told members of the Senate Environment Committee that toxic selenium — a naturally occurring element in coal that leeches from valley fills and enters the water supply — was causing deformities, death and reproductive failure in fish. He said the same scenario also threatens wildlife.
If the levels of selenium found in waterways near Zeb Mountain are any indicator, the state could be in serious trouble.
"The fact that selenium shows up suggests drainage is getting into the water supply," Lemly says. "[Tennessee officials] need to get a better handle on water quality and potential contamination."
It makes poor regions even poorer. According to the National Mining Association, one worker extracts two-and-a-half-times more coal per hour on a mountaintop removal site than in an underground operation. Over the last three decades in Kentucky, for instance, the mining work force has declined some 60 percent due to the prevalence of mountaintop removal mining.
According to Jackson, who has sponsored the mountaintop removal restriction bill every session since 2008, the industry employs about 350 people in Tennessee surface mines. Conversely, the state's tourism industry — largely dependent on its natural resources — brought in $14.2 billion in revenue in 2007, according to the state Department of Tourist Development. Needless to say, many more Tennesseans work in tourism than in the mines.
The Rev. Ryan Bennett, a Methodist pastor in Franklin and environmental activist, takes that point back to Aesop.
"You don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg," he says.
Chalk it up to shameless campaign pandering, a short and confused memory, intellectual softness or even pure ignorance, but Ramsey's gaffe was mountainous in every conceivable meaning. After all, United Coal Company's world sales headquarters is in Blountville, Tenn., where Ramsey lives. And the state Senate's alpha pol has been a consistent enemy of Jackson's legislation in the past.
The proximity of coal to politicians is nothing new. State Rep. John Lundberg is sponsoring legislation this session to create a "Friends of Coal" license plate, the proceeds of which would go to help reclamation efforts of mine sites. Here's the first problem: By law, the coal companies are actually responsible for costs associated with reclamation, although they often spritz a little non-native grass seed on the soil — beleaguered by rocks — and call it grazing space. (The Science article confirms that reclamation efforts of mountaintop sites are largely a cruel joke.)
But the second problem is more insidious. Lundberg is president of The Corporate Image PR firm. The Bristol, Tenn.-based agency represents a company called Alpha Natural Resources, which is currently responsible for 27 active surface mining sites and has relocated to Bristol. Alpha even offered a testimonial for the work of Lundberg's firm:
"From their help with crafting a media program, which resulted in our innovative program being lauded in targeted media outlets, to individualized stock certificates handed to every employee — The Corporate Image was with us every step of the way," Alpha spokesman Ted Pyle gushes on Corporate Image's website. "The regional and national news coverage they garnered for us was effective in driving our company's image even higher in the industry."
According to the group Clean America, Alpha is one of the leading practitioners of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. It also runs 38 underground mining sites and 10 coal preparation plants.
Finally, there is the disgraceful idiocy of people like U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Chattanooga, who told an audience at a January gubernatorial debate that mountaintop removal mining "is actually good for the birds, and good for the environment." Ask any scientist, and they'll say that conspicuously absent from the aforementioned statement is any modicum of truth.
But there are bright (and encouragingly nonpartisan) spots, too. Alongside Jackson's efforts on the state level, Alexander has sponsored federal legislation to ban the earth-pillaging practice of mountaintop removal. Last week, the Alliance for Appalachia even bestowed him with its "Defender of the Mountains" award for his work on the issue.
"Saving our mountaintops is important, whether we are talking about cleaning up air pollution, stopping the practice of putting 50-story wind turbines atop our most scenic ridges, or ending the practice of blowing off the tops of mountains and dumping the excess waste in streams," Alexander says. "People live in and come to visit Tennessee to see the natural beauty of the mountains — not to see smoggy air, massive ridgetop towers and excess waste piled in streams."
Hershkowitz says the NRDC is watching the state legislature closely for signs of progress on Jackson's bill. It could be a bellwether for the rest of the country.
"Let's face it: This bill is not going to kill mining or even mountaintop mining in Tennessee," he says. "It's going to stop things above 2,000 feet. But it would be a real signifier in a very meaningful Southern state that it's concerned about this issue."