This post is based on a commentary that originally appeared in The Roanoke Times on July 4, 2011.
Coal-powered electric plants provide much of Virginia with some of the cheapest electricity in the nation. But they do so at a tremendous cost. For one Alexandria couple, that cost was too high.
Sherrie Good and Virginia Cutchin?s house, recently outfitted with a full solar power system, was featured in an article in the Del Ray edition of Patch.com. The Patch reporter asked why they had gone to the trouble and expense, and Good answered with three words: ?Mountaintop removal mining.?
When I talked to Good about the decision to go solar, she said,? ?We didn?t want to be a part of mountaintop removal mining. That was the bottom line.?
More people are a part of mountaintop removal mining than realize it. Using an online tool provided by Appalachian Voices, Good, who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and feels a strong kinship with the mountains, found out the electricity Dominion Power delivered to her home was at least partially generated from coal mined by mountaintop removal.
Not any more. This time of year, the system mostly meets all of the couple?s electric needs, using a battery system to power the house overnight.
If more people knew what was happening to Appalachian mountains to provide coal to generate electricity, Good hopes they would try to follow her example.
?We don?t know what we?ve done,? she said. ?We don?t know the real expense of coal. We have no idea what we?re doing to the Earth. The less we?re a part of that, the happier I am.?
What is mountaintop removal mining? Once-lush mountaintops are stripped bare. Bulldozers tear trees out by their roots. The top of the mountain is blown into rubble with high-powered explosives and then methodically decapitated by huge machines called draglines that scoop up the “overburden” – the compressed dirt and rock that had been an ancient mountain – to get to multiple coal seams beneath.
Afterwards, the mountains are supposed to be reclaimed and rebuilt to the extent possible, but they are never the same. And however well coal companies try to put everything back, a lot of dirt and rock ? which the industry refers to as ?spoil? ? is left over. This mining waste is dumped into nearby valleys, filling them and burying the streams that ran down them. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles of Appalachian streams have been buried by valley fills.
The impacts on nearby communities are severe throughout the process. Blasting shakes houses, sometimes cracking foundations, and blankets the area with dust. Rock sometimes flies from the mine site and lands in yards or crashes through houses. Stripped mountains increased the impact of flooding. And, of course, the natural environment – forests, streams and hillsides – is largely destroyed.
To Good, this is a far worse environmental disaster than, for instance, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. ?In a few hundred years, the Gulf will be ok, but once you blow the top off a mountain, it will never be the same,? she said.
That?s true. Mining engineers can?t rebuild an ancient mountain the way God made it. Native Appalachian forests can?t be recreated once destroyed. Streams, once buried, are forever destroyed.? Scientific studies have shown ?pervasive and irreversible? environmental damage from mountaintop removal mines and valley fills.
But most people, far from the mountains being blown apart and the streams being buried, give all this little thought when they flip on a light switch or plug in their iPhone to charge.
Of course, not everyone can afford to install a solar power system. But everyone can work to conserve electricity. We can all work to educate ourselves on the true cost of ?cheap? power. We can let politicians know that the laws governing mountaintop removal need to be strengthened and enforced.
Sherrie Good and Virginia Cutchin didn?t want to be complicit in the harm caused by mountaintop removal mining.
Radmacher is the communications director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment.