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.