And every mountain brought low

WHEN PRESIDENT CLINTON LAUNCHED HIS "POVERTY TOUR" IN JULY, HIS FIRST STOP WAS AMONG THE economically forlorn hills of Appalachia. Clinton spoke of creating market incentives to spur economic development in a region that last enjoyed substantial relief from poverty only during the 1960s Great Society program.

The irony of the NAFTA-signing, free-market-loving Democrat talking about poverty relief and economic development was likely not lost on most of the downsized, laid-off, or otherwise unemployed citizens of Appalachia who came to hear Clinton speak. They probably already know that no amount of corporate welfare is going to make their poverty more attractive to U.S. industry than the $2-to-$4-a-day working poverty it's discovered in Mexico and other developing economies.

Besides, many of these good folk are already enjoying the loud and dusty rewards of an unofficial economic development plan underway in Appalachia. Looping through a tiny hole in a piece of strip-mining legislation, over the last 10 years Appalachia's coal industry has conducted a war of attrition against the region's environment, people, and rural tradition.

A previously little used mining technique called "mountaintop removal" (MTR) has become a widespread method of extracting the region's low-sulfur coal. The process is breathtakingly destructive, almost diabolically arrogant: Entire mountaintops are blown up, cut up, and ground into dust as the coal is extracted. The rubble left over is dumped into nearby valleys—over the last few years obliterating hundreds of mountain streams. MTR is the crack cocaine of coal extraction.

The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) was aimed at mitigating strip mining—a coal extraction technique that had already brutally scarred the topography of Appalachia—so that future generations of Appalachians would have something left over when the coal is eventually gone. Under SMCRA, mine operators must reconstruct the land to its "approximate original contours" after strip mining. The law left one opening, however, allowing MTR if it could be demonstrated that substantial economic development would be generated in the wake of such devastation. While legislators had leveled topography ready for industrial campuses in mind, coal companies have been seeking—and receiving—MTR variances by arguing that their activity would leave behind "timberland" and "wildlife habitat" for "economic development."

It has taken the outrage and despair of community members and grassroots activists to call attention to this environmental rampage. Their resistance to King Coal has had some notable successes recently. What remains troubling is how state and federal officials charged with protecting the environment most often served as willful co-conspirators with coal-mining interests and the United Mine Workers in this widespread terracide of Appalachia.

More than hilltops and hollows have been lost to MTR. Besides the ineffable costs of this unhappily transformed and alien landscape, communities that have lived for generations among these hills have been driven out by the noise and rocking of large detonations and the grit and dust they've kicked up. Few people are willing to live in the mudslide-threatening shadow of the "valley fills" left behind by MTR.

King Coal claims that MTR brings money and jobs to Appalachia, but such arguments sound increasingly hollow. Because of technological improvements, mining jobs have been in a steep decline for decades even as coal production has increased. Heavily mechanized, MTR in particular creates few jobs. After more than 100 years of mining, the region remains among the nation's poorest. Clearly, for true economic development to take place, Appalachians need to look past the coal dust and into a different future for their children. Creating that future is a responsibility they share with all Americans.

Low-sulfur coal generates cleaner energy for all of us. It is unfair that a few should have to shoulder the environmental burden for improved air quality for the many. After the forests and the coal are all gone, it is a national responsibility that Appalachia have something to show for its sacrifices. But unless more Americans wake up to this shameful environmental looting, the only reward that the people of Kentucky and West Virginia can expect will be shifting landfills, dried-up stream beds, and the unnatural plateaus of "wildlife habitat" left over from mountaintop removal, as flat and sterile as the snake-oil economic development they represent. 

Kevin Clarke is the Managing Editor of Online Products for Claretian Publications and a Contributing Editor to U.S. Catholic.

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