Blowing Their Tops

Local activists fight mountaintop removal mining, raise awareness

Nov 11, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Vicco, Ky. — Picking his way through the mountain laurel near his Appalachian home, McKinley Sumner explains that all he ever wanted was a peaceful life on his family’s land where he was born and raised.

“I live out here in the boondocks and that’s how I like it,” says Sumner, 76, stepping over the remains of a rusted fence that his father built in the 1930s.

It’s not hard to imagine why. The oak forest around him is thick and silent, dappled with autumn sunlight. But the serenity stops abruptly at a cliff on the edge of Sumner’s 63 acres. It’s been six years now since his neighbor sold out to the International Coal Group and the mountaintop removal mining began, but Sumner’s eyes still flash at the sight.

The mountains in front of him have been turned inside out.

Giant bulldozers (“monsters,” Sumner calls them) have shorn away the forest and chiseled the mountaintops into vast, dusty plains that dwarf a handful of 18-wheeler trailers parked antlike on their surface. The mountainsides are strewn with rock and rubble, and sediment ponds in the valleys brim with wastewater. It is a standard scene of mountaintop removal mining in the heart of America’s coal country, but familiarity hasn’t made the sight any more tolerable for Sumner.

“This is a disgrace to the human race and a disgrace to God’s creation,” he says, jabbing a finger at the devastation in front of him. “I’ll never give up fighting mountaintop removal mining. I hope it stops in my lifetime.”

Sumner comes to this cliff a lot. Sometimes he’s alone, but more often he’s guiding a group of college students, journalists, activists or anyone else who’s interested in seeing firsthand the effects of mountaintop removal mining.

Today, Sumner is guiding a group from the Cincinnati chapter of Ohio Citizen Action (OCA), which launched a campaign in September 2008 to fight this type of mining. OCA is mobilizing support in Cincinnati for the Clean Water Protection Act, a bill that would effectively prohibit mountaintop removal mining of coal. The group’s 80,000 members helped push U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Price Hill) of Ohio’s 1st District to become the 158th co-sponsor of the bill in October.

“It’s outrageous to have the oldest mountains in America devastated for allegedly cheap energy,” says OCA canvasser Nathan Rutz.

Rutz is a long-haired, 22-year-old philosophy major and Cincinnati native. Rachael Belz, executive director of OCA’s education fund, calls him “the most passionate person about mountaintop removal mining that I’ve ever met off the coal fields.” When President Obama came to Coney Island on Labor Day, Rutz had his hand raised during the entire 30-minute speech to ask the president what he was doing to stop mountaintop removal mining. Obama didn’t take any questions.

Devastating bullies

OCA staff say they are fighting mountaintop removal mining because of the devastation it wreaks on the environment, the toxic waste to which it exposes nearby residents and the bully tactics coal companies use to circumvent local opposition and the law. They say this is an important campaign for their group because much of Cincinnati’s — and Ohio’s — electricity is generated by burning mountaintop coal from Appalachia.

“I’m going to feel guilty turning the lights on now,” OCA canvasser Mike Kosciecek said after seeing the devastation.

So far, it’s believed that the mining technique has destroyed about 470 Appalachian peaks and polluted more than 1,200 miles of streams, according to the Institute for Southern Studies.

Melissa English, OCA’s Southern Ohio campaign director, says the true cost of mountaintop removal mining is borne by the public, not the coal companies.

“We pay with the loss of our landscape and tourism income,” she says. “It’s not benefiting anybody except the coal companies, for a very limited time.”

But within the communities affected by mountaintop removal mining, opinion is divided.

Dilapidated mobile homes line the winding road through the hollow from Kentucky Highway 15 to Sumner’s property. Outside one home, a set of bald tires and a rusting oven sit next to a “For Sale” sign. Beside another home is a sign reading, “Who is Barack ‘Hussein’ Obama, Really?” The sides of the hollow are choked with kudzu vine, which seems to be bearing down on the houses themselves. In this remote, impoverished corner of Kentucky, many residents fear that activists will push out the region’s only reliable employer — the coal companies.

Activists maintain that they are against mountaintop removal mining, not against coal. “Coal is a legitimate part of the heritage of people who live here,” English says.

But Sumner and a rising tide of opposition say coal companies make poor neighbors who aren’t worth courting any longer. Sumner is tired of seeing the region’s standard of living remain dismal as more of the area’s natural resources are extracted. “Somehow, something tells me we are being exploited,” he says.

Sumner has watched as the mountains around his property are scraped of their topsoil, and then blown apart for easy access to coal seams that are sometimes only 12 inches wide. Coal from mountaintop removal mining makes up a mere five percent of the country’s electricity supply, according to the nonprofit Appalachian Voices.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to do this amount of devastation for that amount of coal,” he says. “The blasting knocked the pots and pans off of my cabinets.” A neighbor had chunks of rock fall into his kids’ above-ground swimming pool. “That’s how they treat people in Eastern Kentucky,” Sumner says.

‘Reclaiming’ mountains

The coal companies say they reclaim the mountaintop removal mining sites by planting trees and grasses when they’re finished with them.

One company that uses the technique, Massey Energy of Richmond, Va., says it’s planted millions of trees and successfully reclaimed thousands of acres in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. As evidence, Massey points to awards from the Society of American Foresters, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and government agencies.

“One misconception about land reclamation is that the new forests and wildlife habitats are flat. In fact, most reclamation areas are returned to rolling hills. When land is left flat after mining, it is usually so that the land can be employed in some productive way such as the creation of public schools, industrial and commercial,” Massey states on its Web site.

But often the mountains’ valuable topsoil lies at the bottom of vast heaps of slate, and reclamation is next to impossible. Sumner points out a nearby mountain that was mined and reclaimed 20 years ago. It remains bald, but for a few Russian olives.

“There is no way you’re gonna turn this back to the way it was,” he says. “We don’t need mountains without trees.”

Sumner lives in the house his father, a coal miner, built before he was born. His mother’s old belongings clutter the interior. As peaceful as the property seems, Sumner feels besieged. He’s already found International Coal Group bulldozers trespassing on his property and uprooting his trees. Several stakes marking his property line have disappeared. The coal companies have repeatedly tried to buy him out. Their latest offer was $300,000. But Sumner has no plans of selling.

“Dad and Mom didn’t want anything happening to the property,” he says. “That’s why I’m fighting.”

Sumner, a former hospital janitor who turned down a management position because he didn’t like the idea of telling people what to do, stands outside his front door, near a patch of black-eyed Susans that have withered in the cold. Near them a sparse clump of Mexican sunflowers are barely blooming.

“I’m still here,” Sumner sighs, looking around his land. “I don’t know how long I’m gonna be able to hold out, but I’m going to try to keep it.”