“Remember to remove the I Love Mountains bumper sticker before heading into coal country.” That was advice I gave myself before touring counties where mountaintops are being “removed” by open mining in the heart of Appalachia. I wasn’t a declared environmental activist, and didn’t want to be recognized as someone coming to antagonize the friends of coal.
In youth 500 million years ago, the Appalachian Mountains were lofty and pointy like the Alps, and have slowly eroded into the smooth domes some 3,000 to 5,000 feet high we see today. But forty years of mining has scooped hundreds of feet off the tops of 500 mountains in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee (in that order).
As I drove to West Virginia I knew something about of this kind of mining. I had read about its impact on community health (cancer and birth defects), headwater pollution by mine tailings, and coal trucks dashing around quiet country roads. Topping a mountain exposes coal seams that are otherwise hard to reach, and it avoids the hazards of explosions inside deep mines—memories of the Sago Mine in 2006 and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010 are still raw. It is an economical and highly profitable industry that employs fewer miners, and most profits go out of state. No change there.
I was drawn to coal country by the question of what happens to mountains after mining operations cease. If a permit requires the land to be returned to nature or improved for “economic benefit,” how effective are the actions and do companies drag their feet? The claims of the mining industry versus environmental activists (the NRDC and Appalachian Voices, for example) made me wonder if they were describing the same thing. Were the flattened tops being converted into golf courses and happy hunting grounds for local people to enjoy, or was the mining legacy sterile rock and toxic pools of impounded sludge from washed coal? My curiosity demanded satisfaction.
I visited two mines that are no longer active and are therefore ripe for reclamation. I had to imagine their recent history. Before mining could start, the trees were felled and carted away as lumber or burnt. Then the topsoil was pushed aside, perhaps to be returned but maybe discarded and a substitute used later on. Then the blasting began. Mountains up and down the valley would have echoed to explosions, as if in anguish at losing an old neighbor. The rubble of rock and subsoil, called “overburden” (a derisory name for the wonderful complexity of geological history), was pushed aside to expose a coal seam, and after the black gold was scooped out blasting resumed until the deepest seam was exposed. The overburden was dumped in pits from the last operation, or if they were unavailable it was pushed over the side of a ridge into a valley (“holler fill”) where it smothered headwaters and poisoned living things with heavy metals.
I was glad I hadn’t been a witness to that despoliation, and hoped to see mountaintops long past their surgery days and now reaching advanced stages of convalescence. Perhaps they would be beautiful, verdant, and harboring wildlife again. My destination was Nicholas County, WV, where I chose two mines that overlook the tiny hamlets of Hookersville and Muddlety (I kid you not!).
My topographic map didn’t show a route up the mountain at Hookersville, so I hailed an old man sitting on his tractor. A friendly soul, he apologized for forgetting to put his teeth in that morning and pointed to the low mountain across the country road. An ugly cell phone tower now stands on its top, supposedly representing the economic gain left by the departing coal firm. I expected to see the mountainside still scraped down to bare rock, like the face of a miniature El Capitan, but it was completely green.
“Finished takin’ out coal ‘bout twelve yarr ago,” the man told me. “Lots o’ deer, turkey, an’ barr now.” This news exceeded my wildest dreams.
His directions led me to a rutted track winding up the mountainside. I had to climb through a hole in the fence as the gate was barred. During my ascent, I did indeed see a couple of deer and a turkey, as well as goldenrod and asters flowering beside the track, and at least four species of butterflies. I was flummoxed by strong signs of nature rallying, especially when I found vegetation was covering the top.
Had I immediately turned back I might have come home with a different impression, but I stopped awhile to look around. It was then that I realized the growth was unlike any secondary succession you expect when a patch of forest is clear-felled or burned. There was no riot of blackberry bushes, no understory trees like sassafras and American hornbeam sprouting up before the oaks, beech, and other canopy trees take over. And there was only one kind of shrub, and it was crowding out other plants, invading the last grassy space, and shading native plants and saplings as they struggled for light. This mountaintop had nothing like its original biodiversity, and was as uniform as a field of corn. The shrub was autumn olive, an invasive, alien species planted because it is tolerant of poor soil. It is regarded as a pest in other places, and hard to eradicate. It offers berries for birds to eat at this season, but the waxy leaves are unattractive to grazing animals.
My first impression of greenness had duped me into believing that a mountain that had taken millennia to mature was returning to its natural state within a few years. How foolish. How could it recover completely after losing its native soil and pristine drainage? I took a final photograph of the “hollow” below, wondering if its residents were too easily satisfied by the appearance of their mountain, green and silent again.
Seven miles away, Muddlety was a sparsely-populated ribbon of homes along highway 55 in a pretty valley. Mining operations ceased only three years ago, and where the mountain ridge came within a half mile of the road orange bluffs were visible where trees once stood.
As the mine entrance was open, I parked close by to wander up the dusty track, past boards announcing mining permits, blast warnings, and keep-out signs. A few hundred yards inside, I saw a guard house like a pill box with a single window, and as I drew close a guard sauntered over. He looked more surprised than surly, and probably hadn’t seen a visitor all day (or all year).
In settings where visitors might not be welcome I count on an English accent to put people off guard. Didn’t I look like a lost tourist? Doesn’t an “open mine” mean public access? And when a naïve manner fails, I guarantee that faked eccentricity will succeed.
Despite his suspicious eye, he gently told me I couldn’t go any further. Why not? Wasn’t it safe now, because blasting had ceased? I tried to engage a conversation by telling him that former industrial land in England was being reclaimed, and I was wondering how it was done here. When he replied only by lighting a cigarette, I decided not to press any more questions, and resisted the cheeky temptation of asking if he’d read John Grisham’s recent novel, Gray Mountain, about the chicanery of a coal company. I didn’t need his permission, because I knew I could hop over the fence down the road, perhaps with the landowner’s permission.
A middle-aged couple working in their yard directed me to a wee home across the road where I knocked on the door of a very old lady. I must have been too successful in putting her mind at ease because she kept me standing on her doorstep as she regaled me with a long life story before asking why I was there. Can I cross your land for a better view of the mountain, I asked? Of course, she answered, it’s barely a 15 minute walk.
She pointed to a distant ridge where the mining company had started replanting trees. Didn’t it look marvelous? I nodded, but was imagining another monoculture of autumn olive. She told me the company used to come round to check that blasting hadn’t damaged her home, and when her neighbor’s stream was polluted from mine tailings they had dug a well for them. How very kind of them.
I struggled up her path for nearly an hour, all the while wondering what metal 90 year old ladies in the valley were made of. Dense thickets stood in my way of the summit, so I photographed some bluffs through gaps between trees. The hike was, however, worthwhile because I found a stream where I collected samples for testing water quality.
I had hoped to see more on the trip, much more, and wanted to know what local people really thought about the extraction industry banging around their hills, but I had seen enough to realize that claims of mountaintop “reclamation” are fabrications. They may become green again, but are never the same and are biologically impoverished. It’s time to display that bumper sticker again.
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