June 10, 2010

Before the matter of far-right extremism sucked me into its orbit, I was an environmental reporter for many years (indeed, I originally began reporting on militias as part of the extreme backlash against environmentalism). And I've been growing increasingly interested in -- and concerned about -- the growing issue of mountaintop-removal coal mining in the Appalachians.

As a lifetime resident of the West who grew up in Idaho, I'm all too acutely aware of the ways the resource-extraction industry wantonly destroys the natural heritage of rural people. I've witnessed firsthand destruction of the landscape -- and with it people's ways of life -- in the name of minerals and timber, all at the hands of corporate pigs who think nothing of trashing people's homes and then leaving them to clean up the mess and pick up the bill.

Anyone who's ever visited the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana knows what I mean. So when I began reading about mountaintop removal back East, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because I could see what it truly is: strip mining on steroids.

That was what Ashley Judd called it yesterday, too, in her speech at the National Press Club (organized by the Natural Resources Defense Council). I was wrapping up some open time at the end of the America's Future Now conference and wanted to hear what she had to say. I have to admit celebrities don't normally do very well speaking out on political issues, but Judd's speech was powerful, in no small part because it was an emotional speech for this native Kentuckian:

But the ache I feel for my mountain home is now more than a bittersweet nostalgia accrued through inimitable generations of belonging. There is a searing tear, a gaping wound in the fabric of my life and the lives of all Appalachians. And it gets bigger with every Appalachian mountaintop that is blown up, every holler that is filled, every stream that is buried, every wild thing that is wantonly and recklessly killed, every ecosystem that is diminished, every job that is lost to mechanization, every family that is pitted one against the other by the state-sanctioned, federal government-supported coal industry-operated rape of Appalachia: mountaintop removal coal mining.

She went on to describe in heartfelt terms the kind of wretchedness -- the environmental devastation and job loss -- the mountaintop removal technique has brought to the Appalachians. Basically, the coal companies don't want to have to mine for the coal anymore: now they just blow up entire mountains to scoop it out with a handful of large machines.

I didn't capture it on video, but she also pointed out that the devastation is occurring on a scale similar to that being wrought by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She reads from a thought-provoking and poetic essay by Silas House titled "Sufferings":

I can’t imagine the president doing a flyover of a mountaintop removal site, or holding a press conference about it. And I’ve certainly never seen a mountain blown up on national television—not even once, much less every morning on the Today show.

Yet I would venture to say that mountaintop removal (MTR) is as devastating as the oil spill in the Gulf.

I don’t mean to compare suffering. What I’m saying is actually the opposite of comparison: they’re equally as bad, yet everyone is outraged about the spill while very few people even know about MTR.

Both the oil spill and MTR are environmental, cultural, economic, and health disasters. Both are devastating an entire way of life.

Every time someone says that more than 100 miles of shoreline has been affected by the oil spill, I want to shout that at least 1, 500 miles of waterways have been lost forever in Appalachia.

Every time I think about the spill I also think of the pollution pumping into our creeks and rivers by way of MTR. I think of all the people in the fishing industry whose jobs are threatened by the spill, and then of all the hard-working Appalachians who can’t find a good-paying job besides the mines because we live in a mono-economy created and fostered by the coal industry. I think of how the spill could affect the Gulf so badly that the region’s fishing industry could be wiped out. Immediately I think of how mountaintop removal is hurting all the industries in Appalachia, particularly timber and tourism. New economy doesn’t want to come into a place that has been turned into a war zone with pollution, constant blasting, and intimidation.

NRDC's Rob Perks has more. You can also watch the entire speech over at CSPAN.

Meanwhile, be sure to check out the NRDC's page on mountaintop removal, as well as sites like ILoveMountains.org, which has (among other resources) as great endangered mountains list that gives you a rundown of the scale of what's ahead. You should also check out the work of places like Appalachian Voices.

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