Sometimes one comes across a news story which forces us to think, why isn't this making more news? It is such a dramatic and pressing issue, yet hardly anyone has heard about it.
For me, mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia is one such story.
The state of West Virginia is, in some respects, like my home province of New Brunswick. It is geographically small and characterized by dense forests, small communities and cities and rural areas. Socially, West Virginia is much more conservative, as the state shares cultural characteristics with the Deep South. Economically, it is poorer than the "have not" province of New Brunswick, but the similarities make West Virginia a state that I, especially as a New Brunswicker, can empathize with.
The Appalachian mountain range contains much natural beauty, with majestic mountains and dense forests. These mountains form an important part of the identity and culture of West Virginians. Their influence is pervasive. West Virginia's nickname is "The Mountain State," the state motto is "Mountaineers are always free," and one of the state songs is "The West Virginia Hills."
This is also something I, as a New Brunswicker, can relate to. New Brunswick is characterized by forests, rivers and coastlines that form an important part of its identity. The loss or destruction of these natural characteristics would represent a grave loss to us personally as New Brunswickers.
In West Virginia, the natural heritage is being destroyed through mountaintop removal mining. Mountaintops are literally being removed by coal companies. Traditional underground coal mining requires more labour, and hence more wages, while blasting the mountains allows the mining companies to send in trucks and equipment to retrieve the coal with fewer costs. This leads to more profits for the coal companies and job losses in the coal mining industry.
That this destruction is not making more headlines is astounding. The heritage of a region ruthlessly destroyed in the interests of greed.
Through mountaintop removal, pristine and forested mountains are reduced to barren moonscape-like terrains. Airborne debris from the blasting is harming the health of West Virginia residents. "Overburden," which is the remainder from the blasts and coal mining operations, is trucked into valleys where it is deposited, a practice known as "valley-filling." This practice additionally erodes the natural beauty of Appalachia and leads to the pollution of nearby rivers and streams, thus further harming the health of West Virginians.
The practices of mountaintop removal and valley filling are destroying local ecosystems and harming biodiversity, as forests are destroyed and streams and rivers contaminated.
Furthermore, the processing of mined coal creates a waste product known as coal sludge which is stored in "sludge pond" impoundments that are contained by dams. These act as the only barriers between the impoundments and further ecological catastrophe. One particularly controversial sludge impoundment in West Virginia is located near an elementary school. In neighbouring Kentucky, the breach of a sludge impoundment caused a catastrophic spill that polluted waterways, killed aquatic life, and contaminated the water supply of 27,000 people.
Because of the crushing poverty of Appalachia, many of people do not feel they have the voice to fight back, and thus they are taken advantage of as their surroundings are blasted.
This destruction of West Virginia's landscape prevents other economic opportunities, such as eco-tourism, which would provide jobs and revenue. If energy and economic alternatives such as wind power were explored, West Virginians could find a viable substitute to the destructive effects of mountaintop blasting.
The Bush administration pushed forward measures to relax restrictions on both mountaintop removal and valley filling. West Virginia shows the impact of unchecked corporate abuse, where little regard is given to the ecological and social consequences for local residents.
When assessing new economic projects in our home provinces and states, we should be keenly aware of the ecological and social impacts, and be careful to avoid ending up in a situation akin to West Virginia where a natural heritage is being destroyed, and the local people disregarded, in the interests of greed.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Telegraph Journal
Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.