We make the future


By Michael Diamond

An article in the Vanderbilt Hustler, October 9, 2011

Upon leaving one of International Coal Group’s (ICG, now owned by Arch Coal) strip mining sites in eastern Kentucky, it’s easy to see a sign that reads “ICG: We Make the Future.” It’s easy to see because there aren’t any pesky trees, or bushes, or shrubs, or natural hills in the way. It’s easy to forget that where the sign now stands along a barren plateau, punctuated only by blast sites and the occasional surviving plant, once rose a mountain top home to one of the most ecologically diverse forests in North America. It’s easy to forget because coal made Kentucky’s future.

Over Fall Break, while most of my friends went home to visit family or stayed on campus to catch up on some much-needed sleep, I instead went on the OACS/American Studies’ Eco-Rolling Seminar to eastern Kentucky to learn about mountain top removal mining. In Kentucky, I got to see firsthand what the Appalachians look like with and without mountain top removal, and hear the perspectives of both the engineers from ICG and activists fighting the mines.

We started at Thunder Ridge, one of ICG’s strip mining sites. Our guide, a recently graduated mining engineer, told us about how ICG operated and complained a bit about all of the regulations and bureaucracy with which they have to contend. As a result of government mandates, some of the land has been reclaimed for vegetation and even a beekeeping center.

In theory, coal mining companies need to restore mine sites to their “original condition” once they are done mining them – but this is practically impossible when the top is blown off of a mountain. The original condition requirement is therefore nearly always waived, under the condition that coal companies put the land to “better” use, which, based on my experience this weekend, involves putting down a few shrubs that make the sites look like a little piece of Arizona was somehow transplanted into central Appalachia.

In a jarring contrast to ICG’s mountaintop removal site, the next day we went to Robinson Forest, which is protected from mining by the University of Kentucky. This area of Kentucky, thought to be just outside the furthest extent of the glacial advance of the last Ice Age, has some of the greatest biodiversity of any area on this continent. It contains hundreds of unique ecological islands and some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. Prior to mountain top removal mining, most of Appalachia looked like Robinson forest. Now, the forest is a lonely oasis amid industrial, flattened stubs.

Coal companies like ICG claim that their activities are worthwhile for their economic benefit. Yet despite decades of strip mining, central Appalachia is still one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. The coal industry claims that they create much-needed jobs; however, because mountain top removal mining is extremely mechanized, it creates very few jobs compared to traditional underground mining. In the last 15 years, coal employment, but not production, has dropped by 60%.

Studies comparing the revenue that the coal industry brings Kentucky with the revenue that Kentucky spends on the industry in terms of subsidies , road construction and maintenance have found – simply put – that Kentucky spends more supporting coal than coal spends supporting Kentucky. This is before factoring healthcare and other indirect costs of coal. An American Economic Review (Muller, Mendelsohn, Nordhaus) article that attempted to do just that found that coal costs at least $53 billion to the economy in externalities, making the net economic costs of coal greater than their net economic benefit in a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Still, cost-benefit analyses should not be the most important factor in thinking about coal. Exponentially more important is coal’s human cost. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to meet with people who had to deal with the coal companies personally: some whose homes the coal companies attempt to buy and others whose neighbors’ homes were successfully bought. We visited one man who was completely surrounded by mining sites literally within ten minutes walking distance, who nonetheless held on to his land.

Coal companies use divide and conquer, intimidation, and any other technique in order to get at the coal under individuals’ property. Sometimes the coal companies don’t even need to kick people off the land, as old contracts gave much of the minerals under the ground to what are now large multinationals.
Social strife aside, mining has caused Kentucky a great number of health risks. For instance, runoff from the blast sites contaminates the water supply. This leads to health problems among the populace, especially among young children. By some estimates, mining pollution correlates with a 36% increase in infant mortality. Residents continually deal with orange water, which flows from taps and streams alike in the region. Are we really willing to put price tags on clean water, health, family, society, and even entire mountains and forests.

ICG is right. We make the future. And we make the choices. We can choose to look the other way and do what is expedient in the short term. When asked how those who ran the mines dealt with their effects, ICG’s representative told us they didn’t. They don’t live near the mines, so it’s not their problem at all. Likewise, we don’t live by these mines. We don’t have to see them every day. We don’t have to drink, shower, and wash our clothes in contaminated water. We don’t have to care – at least not for now. But we do make the future. And whether that future looks more like the vibrant life of Robinson Forest or the barren landscapes of Thunder Ridge is up to us.

Michael Diamond is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He participated in the 2011 ECO Rolling Seminar , October 6 -8


The 2010 ECO Rolling Seminar Group

The 2010 ECO Rolling Seminar Group

Vanderbilt faculty and student participants posing at the Thunder Ridge coal site in east Kentucky. The group was given a tour of the site plus discussed the issue of mountain top removal with a representative from the International Coal Group (ICG). Participants who questioned the mountain top removal process had to grapple with their own use of energy at Vanderbilt which is supplied from similar coal sites in Kentucky.

Bees in America

Tammy Horn of Eastern Kentucky University sets up bee hives on “reclaimed” mountain top removal sites with the hope of reviving a dwindling honey bee population and providing a new vocation for the inhabitants of east Kentucky. Tammy plants trees and sows wildflowers on the sites. Vanderbilt students and faculty traveled to the Thunder Ridge coal site ( near Hyden,  Kentucky) on October 6 to take a first hand look at mountain top removal and the idea of reclamation in the form of  bee hive projects.

From Huckleberry Ridge to Thunder Ridge

  1. Daymon Morgan bought his Appalachian mountain top property on Lower Bad Creek Road in Leslie County, Kentucky after returning from his stint in the Army following World War Two. As a child, he collected herbs and hunted in the very same area. The only sound the inhabitants  of Lower Bad Creek could hear in the days before the advent of mountain top removal was that of  melodious birds and the rapid percussion of  raindrops  falling upon a thick and never ending leafy awning of  trees and plants.

In time, coal companies bought nearly all the properties surrounding Daymon’s spread including his sister’s adjacent land.  Bad blood remained following his sister’s perfidy.  With the surface mining came dreary moonscapes and so-called  reclamation areas soon covered with newly planted fauna such as lespedeza cubeata. The great trees that arose from the clear cutting roughly one hundred years before were all gone as if the Oncler, yet again,  reckoned with the Lorax. This time there were no stumps allowing the  forest to reemerge on its own accord; the top soil was totally gone too. Some trees were sold for timber,  but most were bulldozed into valleys. Coal roads crisscrossed the boundaries of Daymon’s land.

On  my way to Daymon’s place, I found signs warning visitors about pending detonations, surveillance cameras and roads forbidden to public  access even though they are officially public domain (locals use the roads just the same).  The coal  roads are drab gray  pummeled  rock,  punctuated with  potholes from  the onslaught of massive coal trucks.  The precipice  to Daymon’s property  reveals no more than a sliver of wooded paradise that he calls Huckleberry Ridge. The coal companies refer to the  area  at-large as Thunder Ridge.

Daymon defies the tired stereotype of the provincial Appalachian mountain man.   Yes, he eats squirrel but also drinks almond milk.  He knows the local herbs and their medicinal value which has obviously served his vibrant longevity. Daymon is the thoughtful defender against King Coal‘s destruction of  the remaining vestiges of  Nature and the Appalachian  way of  life.   His struggle has extended beyond his own property to that of all Kentucky.  In recent memory, he has been president of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and traveled the world  as a representative of  this formidable grassroots organization.

Now in his 80’s, he still musters youthful defiance.  He  tells visitors who tour his forest, that there is no price for his land. The coal company sees  the termination of the glorious landscape  as  no more than collateral damage in a  regional war for energy and ultimately profit.

Upon entering  coal country, one senses a battle being waged by  the coal companies and their agents in the State government  and lobbies against the forces who oppose mtr.  Billboards advertising pro-coal rallies line Route 80. Associations are made between coal and American patriotic values.  Bumper stickers and license plates publicize support for the “friends of coal” moniker. Some down home gas station marquees warn “opponents” of coal to reconsider stopping by. The “I love Mountains” supporters are hardly to be seen,  perhaps wary of the consequences of run-ins with their more demonstrative pro-coal neighbors. Their wish to preserve the beautiful land and way of life is ironically perceived as anti- American.

Perhaps the most peculiar oddity is how supporters of coal see themselves: oppressed by outsiders, liberals and the EPA. Truth be told, big coal means big money and political influence in Kentucky. They call the shots for now. The so-called  independent Rand Paul kowtowed to the coal industry during his campaign for the Senate downplaying his preference for nuclear power over coal.

At the close of  the tour of Huckleberry Ridge,  Daymon eases back from battle. He proudly shows his  hybrid deep red “Butcher” corn to all that visit.  Daymon developed this corn which is recognized far and wide.  A fortunate guest might take a couple of ears home.

Whenever I leave Daymon’s company,  I cannot help but feel  this may be the last time I see him. His wife passed away some months ago. He  is a struggling remnant of the few who  intrinsically understand or recall the meaning of  the good life in the Appalachia mountains.  A dying breed.

Appalachia is broken. Tap water is often an orangish hue laden with chemical deposits from the coal excavation process. Its society is ravaged by meth, chronically poor education  and economy. The  coal bosses  give little in return to ameliorate the struggles facing  the people of  east Kentucky. A younger generation is further handicapped by  surgically altered landscapes which no longer replicates bio diversity or its former majesty.  New physical realities force the residents to rethink their sense of place and identity in the denuded environment.

I suspect all that may remain in the not too distant future will be collections of Folkways recordings of mountain  music and  dog-eared copies of  poetry and prose by the Appalachian master, James Still.

On the road home  from Daymon’s place, I  buy gas at the Daniel Boone Plaza shopping center  in Hazard, Kentucky.  It boasts a fairly new Walmart Super Center.  Hazard has finally arrived.  The Plaza is located on a  flat parcel of land that is out of place within the  hilly contours of this region.  I am not surprised to find that my vehicle is  now squarely situated where a densely wooded mountain, full of life,  once stood.


Addendum: Daymon Morgan passed away December 11, 2014






Shaiya Baer

Vanderbilt University

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