When a mountain disappears into thin air

A new mining technique razes peaks to reach coal.

In September 2003, author Erik Reece, a committed environmentalist and writing teacher at the University of Kentucky, climbed Lost Mountain in Eastern Kentucky. He followed the bed of Lost Creek upward.

"I can see no signs of human habitation, not even the inevitable Bud Light can. I sit down on the bank, beneath the yellow glow of beech and maples. Dark water glistens in the shallows below.... Trees decay where they have fallen, providing shelter and food. A Carolina wren hops among the tangled branches," he writes.

The object of Reece's hike was to write an article, and, later, a book, about new-style coal mining, also known as radical strip mining.

When he returned in September 2004, Lost Mountain was gone. Not in the sense that we might use "gone" to describe a mountain after it's been cut clear (no maples, no beech, no Carolina wrens) - but Lost Mountain was actually missing.

In a mining technique known as "mountaintop removal," Leslie Resources Inc. had completely cut away the top of the mountain in order to get to the coal in the most cost-efficient way possible.

The topsoil and bedrock had been dumped downhill, leaving the missing mountain flanked by a missing valley. In the place where a forest once stood on the mountain's steep slopes, there was a tableland of soil too poor to support anything but tough grasses.

The impact of Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness; Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia is as shocking as Reece intends it to be.

We are aware that coal is mined in Appalachia, but it is disquieting to understand that contemporary coal mining means changing forested mountains into a kind of barren tundra. What Reece does not deliver is the promise of his subtitles.

Reece did not spend "a year in a vanishing wilderness." He drove in and took a few hikes. He informs us that these are "the oldest and most diverse forests in North America," but he does not write much about them.

A book that made us understand the power of the Appalachian forest could have made a persuasive argument. Imagine the outrage if some coal-mining firm decided to bulldoze Tinker Creek.

Nor does Reece prove his assertion that strip mining is devastating Appalachia.

This is not to deny that, to take one example, the volatile organic compounds and acids in mine runoff are making people sick and even killing them.

But while anecdotes may effectively play on our emotions, they cannot prove everything.

Reece can afford to substitute anecdote for evidence because he is preaching to the choir. The environmental activists who are most likely to read "Lost Mountain" are prepared to believe all of Reece's allegations without requiring any proof.

They may enjoy his stock cast of rapacious capitalists and small-town victims, and perhaps even his tendency to indict capitalism, American foreign policy, scientific research, and coal mining without drawing breath: "Science without compassion, science without ethics, has given us the modern war machine, the industrial farm, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the strip mine."

The pity is that evidence for the harm that Reece alleges in his book exists, as do energy policies that do not require removing mountains in Eastern Kentucky.

To move to environmentally sustainable energy sources would require political consensus, or, at least, a broad political coalition.

Reece's style, unfortunately, will put off anyone not already a fan of Wendell Berry. That said, members of the environmental choir not already well posted on strip mining will enjoy a pleasant read.

Diana Muir is a freelance writer in New York.

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