by Natalie Hurd

I spent Spring Break in Appalachia, Virginia learning about mountain top removal. Before arriving I had watched documentaries, seen presentations and read articles about the destructive effect surface mining has on the environment around it. Once I was there, I learned very quickly that knowing something and understanding it on a human level are very different.

It was eye opening to see where our energy comes from. We live in a world that uses and often wastes natural resources and to some extent, we can’t change that. Despite this, it is important to realize that our energy comes from a real place – a region troubled by social and economic injustice. Appreciating what we have involves both understanding the problems with coal mining and valuing the communities that live through them.

Before I arrived, I knew that deforesting and leveling a mountain could cause mudslides and flashfloods. I did not understand what those facts truly meant until I heard a woman from a nearby Appalachian community recount the story of a three year old boy who was killed by a boulder in his sleep. I knew that mining companies were required to restore the areas after mining, but I did not understand that “restoration” meant spreading grass seed and planting a few non-native trees. Companies state that decommissioned sites are no longer dangerous, but then I witnessed in person the orange and red runoff flowing into a nearby stream, all because a coal company would not take responsibility for old mistakes.

The human cost of these injustices are real. Over the course of the week, we listened to many panels of local activists and community members who were affected by mountain top removal. The community members were not environmental activists. They did not talk about a changing climate or endangered polar bears – they talked about home. The deep connection they had with the region was impressive and heartbreaking.  During a tour of a mining site, one man drew me aside and pointed to the brown, dusty plateau that used to be a mountain. “That’s where I used to hunt as a boy,” he said. “That was my childhood. Now you can barely tell it used to be a forest.”

Mountain top removal is a somber topic, but I learned about it in a honest, life-altering way with lively and wonderful people. I thought I would miss a lot of things during the week in Appalachia. I assumed I would miss my phone, my laptop…but I didn’t. It is now, being back at school, that I miss things. I miss the mountains, the dogs running around the building, the muddy trails. I miss flannel and guitar songs and wearing the same brown boots every day. And I miss the people. I spent my week hiking in beautiful mountains and listening to inspiring speakers. I huddled around a space heater with other William & Mary students in our sleeping area, singing along as they played Lorde and Train on the guitar. I met friends who drove up from Florida and hitchhiked from Boston, some of whom I am lucky enough to still be in contact with. I made memories that make me smile, and saw things that I will never forget.

I wish I could have brought all my friends from home with me. I wish they could have seen the MTR sites, held a piece of coal in their hands and listened to the Appalachian youth speak about growing up near the mines. I wanted my friends there to pet the dogs, take pictures in front of the mountains and get angry that people just like us have to live with poisoned water and tainted air. Because after this trip, Mountain Top Removal is no longer an abstract issue for me. It’s not about graphs, numbers or government regulations. This is about people- people I know, people I’ve listened to, and communities that are struggling. This time, it’s personal – and I want everyone to know about it.