Mountaintop Removal (Various designers)
From the curators: Mountaintop Removal mining (MTR), which evolved in the 1970s out of conventional strip mining techniques, has become the predominant method for extracting coal in North America. This mining process, largely concentrated in the Appalachian Mountains, makes use of thousands of tons of explosives each day to remove the layers of rock and soil above a coal seam within a mountain. MTR drastically changes—or destroys—the surrounding landscape despite the fact that it streamlines more traditional methods of coal extraction. In America, approximately 40% of electricity is generated from burning coal, a process that contributes to the excessive release of greenhouse gases. Concerns over the straining U.S. power grid have added to the tensions between coal companies and environmental agencies. Though MTR provides access to untapped coal used to fuel the country, its severe environmental and social impacts render the practice abominable to many.
When I was a child, my family drove throughout the Northeastern United States for family vacations and field trips. The movie King Kong had just come out—the 1976 version with Jessica Lange—and the death of King Kong had especially upset me. I felt great sadness for the vulnerable beast that was cruelly captured, displayed in a cage, and toppled to his death from the World Trade Center. On these family road trips, the gently sloping Appalachian Mountains appeared often on the horizon. Staring out the window at them, I imagined them as parts of King Kong—his profile, laying in repose, or his elbow. Now, it seems that King Kong has been chopped up into tiny bits.
Satellite images belie the on-the-ground horror of the situation. I feel disconnected, looking down on the transmogrified landscape. Like a ruthless cancer metastasizing over the hills, creeks, and communities, the time-lapsed display defuses the brutality. We are able to document our destruction using billions of dollars of sensitive, sophisticated technology and human know-how. What will we do with this information?
The exploitation of Appalachia has been a 150-year plan: in the late 1800s and early 1900s, land speculators and coal agents acquired massive tracts of land through deceptive contracts known as the “broad-form deed.” Countless Appalachians unwittingly signed away their land and mineral rights for a pittance; some were able to mark only an X for their signature. As railroads expanded, so did coal mining. Horribly dangerous working conditions in the coalmines sparked the American labor movement and some of the first child labor laws.
The broad-form deed came back to haunt Appalachians when surface mining started up in Kentucky in the 1950s; coal agents returned to take their land and access their coal. Industry’s plan to dominate the region and its resources moved forward relentlessly. When coal mining moved to the surface, the protests began. There was no other recourse. Appalachia was a resource colony and people were not preferred. Doris Shepherd, who protested early strip mining in Kentucky, described it thus: “It was just rampant rape-and-run. I don’t know how they could justify what they did…. And a lot of them, as soon as they filled their pocketbooks, they left; they left us to deal with the problems—the ruined land, the polluted air and the water. We’re still dealing with that today.”
Despite good intent to regulate the controversial new process of mining, the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 instead institutionalized the process known as mountaintop removal or valley-fill coal mining. Removal. Removal was the government’s euphemism for Andrew Jackson’s campaign against Native Americans. President Carter stated his disappointment with the severely weakened law, specifically, that the enforcement of SMCRA was remanded to the individual Appalachian states rather than falling under the purview of the Federal Government. Toothless regulatory agencies remain de rigueur in West Virginia, a state captured by coal industry.
The continuum of violence now stretches from the slaughter of thousands of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears to Bob White, West Virginia, where Maria Gunnoe lives on the land her Cherokee ancestors first settled. The mountaintop removal mine that invaded her backyard—and her life—radicalized Gunnoe, an environmentalist who has fought the process tooth and nail. She has endured and sacrificed much to protect her family and her community, helping to lead the fight to end mountaintop removal. Gunnoe’s ancestors followed the creeks, away from murderous troops, to the family home-place, where she still lives today. Looking at these satellite images is all the more appalling and numbing when this history is considered—what have we done to land that had been cherished even in the most straitened of times?
All that has been destroyed. An area the size of Delaware–equal in size to 1.5 million football fields—has been annihilated by mountaintop removal. Thousands of miles of headwater streams have been buried; thousands of mountain communities poisoned, depopulated. A strip miner told me once that mountaintop removal is like gutting a fish. That miner relished his ability to take down a mountain, even, and especially, when all the people around him cried for him to stop. Is there any greater violence against a people than poisoning their water or fouling their air—the most basic components needed to sustain life—and continuing to do so amid great public outcry?
Video filmed by Maria Gunnoe. Courtesy of Bo Webb/Appalachian Health Community Emergency. 2013