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How the mountains of Appalachia disappear

Michael Shnayerson profiles one valley’s battle against mountaintop mining.

By / January 28, 2008

For a practice that has drastically changed the topography of Appalachia, most Americans – even those who consider themselves environmentalists – know surprisingly little about mountaintop mining.

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The technique, in which the top of a mountain is literally blasted off and dumped into the surrounding valleys to unearth the valuable coal underneath, has leveled mountain peaks, destroyed more than 1.5 million acres of hardwood forest, and buried more than 700 miles of streams.

The reason this practice remains unchecked has a lot to do with where it takes place. In his new book, Coal River, Michael Shnayerson aims to draw attention to this environmental battle raging across one of America’s poorest regions.

“This could never happen in rural Connecticut, Maine, northern California, Washington State, or other places where such devastation would stir outcry, and people with money and power would stop it,” he writes in the book’s prologue. “But Appalachia is a land unto itself, cut off by its mountains from the east and Midwest. Its people are for the most part too poor and too cowed after a century of harsh treatment by King Coal to think they can stop their world from being blasted away.”

In “Coal River,” Shnayerson focuses on one valley in southern West Virginia and the battle raging between many of its residents and Massey Energy (the largest of West Virginia’s coal companies and the most egregious offender both in terms of the environment and its workers’ well-being) and the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that issues mining permits.

The book reads in large part like a courtroom drama as activists file lawsuit after lawsuit in attempts to make changes not just to individual mines or permits, but to the whole mountaintop mining industry. It’s not easy to make lawsuits and appeals scintillating reading, especially those that involve complex mining regulations and technical terminology. But Shnayerson does a valiant job, and for anyone remotely interested in the region, the coal industry, or the devastation being caused by mountaintop mining both to Appalachia’s complex forest and stream ecology as well as to its rich culture, his book is gripping.

Real-life villains and heroes

It helps that, like any good narrative, there are clear heroes and villains. In this case, the story’s main villain is Don Blankenship, Massey Energy’s formidable CEO. Blankenship is a colorful character, with a hardscrabble childhood in the tiny West Virginia town of Delorme. He made good on his own and ended up, according to Shnayerson, adopting his mother’s relentless work ethic and lack of sympathy for those who didn’t work as hard.

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