I think it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of social and environmental problems without actually witnessing them firsthand. Through Branch Out I was granted the opportunity to learn about mountaintop removal firsthand in Appalachia Virginia. Before the trip, my branch out team spent time learning about misconceptions and stereotypes of the Appalachian community as well as the devastation done by mountaintop removal (MTR) on the earth and the people. This wasn’t enough to fully appreciate the multi-dimensional and thickly complicated problem of MTR.
After spending 9 hours in a van with a spirited group of W&M students who had nothing better to do than head to Southwest VA for their spring break, we reached what I would fondly call a well-loved YMCA-style building. In other words, it was a little run down.
We spent the week ‘roughing it’ sleeping in the basketball court, eating communally made vegetarian dishes, and meeting throughout the day to learn non-violent methods of protesting as well as the issues created by MTR. We quickly bonded with other students who came as far away as Vermont and Florida—they drove, which is insane to me—and came to know the facilitators of the camp as they taught us how to organize campus events and what to do if a police officer comes up to you during a protest. There were community service events as well—although they filled up quickly—as well as visits to town and most memorably an actual mountaintop removal site.
That brings me to MTR. Seeing an MTR site in person is profoundly different than seeing a picture. The desolate moonscape that interrupts the lush Appalachian mountains is jarring and unspeakably ugly. This form of coal mining is particularly destructive in more ways than just being explosive. The process itself is done by literally blowing up mountains in layers to reach coal—think of a layered cake, rock then coal then rock then coal. The useless rock is then shoveled off by monstrosities of machines into the valleys and to then smother streams. The coal is collected then shipped to a processing plant. So far 500 mountains have been entirely leveled
This process decimates the biodiversity in Appalachia, which is considered a temperate rainforest very rich in species. The companies are technically responsible for returning the mountain to its previous glory—which is stupidly impossible, let’s be real—but vegetation other than grasses can’t grow because there is no top or middle soil to support growth. The dust from the blasts gives Appalachian residents near these sites a much higher risk for respiratory diseases. The chemicals used seep into the ground to contaminate the locals’ wells and make streams unusable for fauna. Most shockingly, according to Appalachian Voices, an activist group in the area, residents who live near sites are 42% more likely to be born with birth defects than other Appalachians. There are a whole host of other horrifying effects associated with MTR and they can be found at ilovemountains.org, which is run by the Appalachian Voices folks.
The entire experience was more eye-opening than any classroom could ever hope to be. Actually talking to individuals and families who were so strongly impacted by this—all so that we can burn coal to charge our iPhones and watch Netflix—was deeply moving. It seems as though most environmental movements and issues are on such a grand scale. Climate change, melting ice caps, carbon dioxide. How do we address these things? Are they really impacting my life? These are much easier questions to answer when dealing with MTR. We address MTR by protesting, loudly, and pushing legislation through Congress to actually regulate this kind of mining and hopefully someday make it entirely illegal. We address it by encouraging the use of green energy, particularly in Appalachia, to help the people living there break free of the coal company’s shackles. We address it by using less electricity in our own homes.
The situation is bleak. But there is hope. I am incredibly lucky to have had this experience and see how passionately people in Appalachia are fighting, and be encouraged to fight and spread the word too.