Coal River Mountain

“They’re right underneath us.” “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.” “So all that overburden that you see over
top of that seam of coal down there is going to be shoved over the hillside, down into
the headwater streams. And y’all are laying in your fine homes and
turning your air conditioning on, you never give it a second thought where your electricity’s
coming from. And somebody’s paying the price for it. There’s a cost for everything. It’s the people that live in these communities
that’s paying the cost.” Coal, and the workers who mined it, helped
build this country. They made steel for our towers and powered
our wars. “King Coal is our primary source of heat and
energy.” For more than a century, coal has dominated
West Virginia. Today, its governor is a billionaire coal
baron. But technology has reshaped the energy industry
— and changed the way coal is mined. Coal companies buy up whole mountains, find
a thin seam of coal and blast away until they expose it for mining. This is mountaintop removal. And researchers say it has staggering health
effects for people who live near active sites. But to see one of these sites with your own
eyes, you have to get a little creative. Although only about 1 percent of U.S. coal
comes from mountaintop removal, these sites take up 10 percent of the land in central
Appalachia. Despite that, neither the state nor federal
government has paid much attention to mountaintop removal mining. Instead, the role of watchdog has fallen to
academic researchers. Two dozen peer-reviewed studies have found
that this kind of coal mining has a health impact for people living nearby. In an area with mountaintop removal, one study
showed odds of reporting cancer were twice as high compared to a non-mining area in West
Virginia. Another study showed newborns were especially
at risk. Rates of heart defects in newborns were 181%
higher in areas with mountaintop removal. Smoking, occupation, and family history were
all controlled for. Altogether, researchers estimate 1,460 excess
deaths in mountaintop removal areas every year. Although the major coal companies operating
mountaintop removal sites wouldn’t talk to us on the record, the industry has aggressively
countered these health claims through its own channels, even funding a research center
at Virginia Tech university. And while the debate has gone on, researchers
say the worst impacts are hitting remote small towns tucked into the hollers of Appalachia. “This is my water stock. I use water out of a bottle. The water out of my faucet is not healthy
water. I know that it has selenium in it.” “So this is the water right here? This is stock.” “Yeah, that’s what I use for water. Yeah. Most of the people in this area get their
water for cooking, drinking, coffee, anything like that comes out of plastic bottles. Over the years, living here, 3,500 feet from
a mountaintop removal operation, myself and my children have had terrible problems with
our sinuses, a lot of bronchitis, a lot of breathing issues. Cancer is extremely common here. My daughter’s lost four friends to cancer
and she’s only 22. When you live here, that’s just part of it. You almost know what your death diagnosis
is going to be just because you live here.” “Somebody watching this might say, ‘Well why
wouldn’t they move?’ Explain to them, why wouldn’t you?” “I’m not willing to give up everything that
makes up my identity, and the identity of future generations, our family’s future generations,
I’m not willing to give that up for a black rock. I’m just not willing to give it up.” “We’re walking into a public hearing. This is a chance for people to come here and
give their input to a study that the National Academies are doing on the link between mountaintop
removal coal mining and human health.” “I’d like to first thank everyone for being
here. We appreciate your courage in making this
effort to help us with our study.” “These people love being coal miners in this
state. I hear kids throughout the country getting
cancer at three years old. Never been around a coal mines. Are you looking at that?” “These strip mines, these coal mines, that
dust and that coal slurry makes people sick. And that’s the bottom line. Period on the end of that sentence.” This new study, begun in 2016, is funded by
the federal government and staffed by a panel of experts. To people who say mountaintop removal is making
them sick, it’s their best hope for action on the issue. But it’s also a threat to an industry that
a lot of people here have built their life around. “My name is Dennis Atkins. I am a 31-year veteran of the coal industry. Retired in 2010. We call it mountaintop development, because
there is no developable land unless you take the mountains off. God give us coal. God give us coal to use. And we know, as mountaintop developers, we
understand that we have to do it in a responsible way.” Although the major coal companies had turned
us down for an interview, at this hearing we were able to talk to the vice president
of the West Virginia Coal Association for the industry’s perspective. “At West Virginia University, there was a
study in 2012 that showed cancer rates twice as high for neighboring regions around surface
mine sites. What is your response to these studies?” “Correlation does not equal causation. Health has been poor in Appalachia for a long
time, certainly before the dawn of large-scale surface mining. And just because we operate adjacent to populations
that are already impaired does not mean we’re the cause of that. I mean, we have thousands of men and women
every day that show up and operate equipment on these surface mines, and there has been
no increase as far as we can tell in respiratory or other ailments or maladies in our workforce.” “Are you hopeful about the current administration
and its views on the coal industry.” “Yes. Very optimistic, very optimistic. We think that President Trump finally recognizes
the hard work that’s done in West Virginia and that’s been done in West Virginia for
decades to make this country a better place.” “We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal. We’ve stopped the EPA intrusion.” There is no doubt President Donald Trump is
a strong ally of the coal industry. But there’s uncertainty around whether his
policies benefit workers or just pad the corporate profits of coal executives, like those who
have donated heavily to his party and his campaigns. For decades, the amount of coal produced in
the U.S. has remained relatively stable, but coal companies employ less than half the workers
they did in 1980. That’s largely because of automation and heavy
machinery replacing the need for workers. Mountaintop removal sites are a prime example
of this. The growth of other energy industries in Appalachia,
like solar, has been almost completely ignored by political leaders. But in West Virginia and in Washington, the
coal industry has been politically protected. “The White House is shutting down a study
examining the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. The waste from the process is then dumped
into the streams and valleys below nearby.” “So we were just at their hearing a few weeks
ago, and now the National Academies study into mountaintop removal has been halted by
the Trump administration. The Department of the Interior is telling
us that they’re halting and reviewing all of their studies that cost more than $100,000,
but the Charleston Gazette-Mail just had this report that shows actually the National Academies
study is being singled out. The Department of the Interior won’t tell
us why. We filed a ton of requests through the Freedom
of Information Act, and we got all this in return. For a reporter, this is like Christmas morning. Most of this is communication within the Department
of the Interior. You can see the researchers trying and failing
to convince their supervisors that more research is badly needed into the human health impact
of mountaintop removal. This is the second government study in three
years to get shut down. And the people that we talked to in West Virginia
had really pinned their hopes to that National Academies study.” “This is my home. You know, I grew up hunting over there where
that equipment is right now. You know, I spent time with my pawpaw out
there on that mine site. You know this isn’t our capitalist system
gone horribly horribly wrong. This is our capitalist system gone horribly
horribly right and according to plan. That’s what this is.” “It’s not as expensive to mine the coal this
way for them. For them. But it’s pretty expensive when you start adding
in all the external factors like the health problems it throws onto communities. We’re the ones that created this mess, and
we’re passing it on to our kids. And they’re going to look at us one day and
say, ‘What the hell were you thinking about? You know, what was you thinking about?'”

2 thoughts on “Coal River Mountain

  1. Are we monitoring heavy metals amounts in water that flows from these sites? What are the numbers? Let's get those facts and file a thousand lawsuits. C'mon West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the rest of these states, you have to fight for these people!!
    BTW, I have worked in coal fired power plants and strip mines, since 1979. The TRUMP administration is sacrificing these people in the name of coal company profits.

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