“Thank god we don’t have coal underneath our beautiful mountains in Western North Carolina,” says Fern Greenleaf, 22, a senior transfer student from Gloucester, Mass., who majors in environmental studies and creative writing at Warren Wilson College. “That doesn’t mean we’re not contributing to the problem of burning coal.”
Historically, Western North Carolinians have heated their homes using coal. The late 19th and early 20th century bungalows and cottages throughout the Asheville area, frequently retain old coal heating apparatus like the bin, above, in their basements. Now, many homes are fitted for electric heat, which is also generated by coal fired plants. As energy usage and rates soar due to this winter's record colds, interest in affordable energy alternatives runs high as demands for coal increase.
Coal burned to generate power in Western North Carolina is mined in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, through a strip mining process called "ridge removal." During the process, mountain tops are dynamited, the soil scraped away, the coal removed, and the debris pushed into valleys.
Three weeks ago, Warren Wilson hosted singer/activist Kathy Mattea for a presentation and performance highlighting the effects of mountaintop removal and Mattea's role in the process.
At best, mountaintop removal is an ugly process. Mining companies consider it necessary for the expeditious, affordable removal of coal. Activists consider it tantamount to rape. Appalachian families have lost lives, homes, and heritage to the practice.
Meanwhile, individuals like Greenleaf, who interned last summer with the United Mountain Defense in Knoxville, Tenn., is representative of a group of students and activists in Western North Carolina who are fighting to stop mountaintop removal. However, “in my mind, the coal companies have not truly heard the people of Appalachia,” she says. “By destroying the environment, they are destroying lives.”
Luna Scarano, 21, a junior philosophy major at WWC, agrees that mountaintop removal must be stopped. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., she first learned about the practice when an informational road show visited her university. Already an activist, her interest spiked when she realized that Appalachian coal was being sent up north to generate power.
When she transferred to Warren Wilson, the advocacy group, ilovemountains.org, arranged for Scarano and others to tour Larry Gibson’s endangered ancestral home at Kayford Mountain, W.V., and the flattened landscapes surrounding it.
“It was just overwhelming, and it spurred an interest in trying to stop it,” said Scarano, who works with Greenleaf and other activists to target facilities using coal – or doing so when built.
Scarano plans to take part in the non-profit activist group Mountain Justice summer program, taking action, doing community outreach, and increasing her involvement in campaigns and issues. She sees fighting mountaintop removal and promoting clean alternatives as “an all encompassing campaign” including adjusting consumption, boycotting funding suppliers, and reconsidering energy plants.
“They’re all connected in a web of power and evil,” she says. A statement which sounds extreme, but so does the unwavering interests of corporations like Progress Energy, Massey Energy, Duke Energy, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, and others.
For Greenleaf, a meaningful dialogue would include legislative caps and real questioning of the current system allowing mining companies to continue mountaintop removal with what she sees as little accountability for undesirable outcomes, like toxic contamination threatening health and destroying the environment. And, it would include an effort “to see what we can do to build sustainable economies in the area.”
“We need to recognize our own use of coal is going to come to an end. Will we have breathable air, and a livable climate, before we stop using it a lot?” She suggests this transition must hurt the people of Appalachia as little as possible, including those people who depend on coal mining for their livelihood.
For more information on Asheville activism and advocacy regarding the issue of mountaintop removal, go to www.ilovemountains.org, http://www.mountainjusticesummer.org/, and in collaboration with related issues, http://www.risingtidenorthamerica.org/wordpress/category/coal/.
Sherri L. McLendon is a freelance writer from Weaverville, N.C. She can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers can view her webpage at http://www.sherrimclendon.com/, or check out her media blog at email@example.com