Mountain Justice Summer Fights Back in the Heart of MTR Country
On Friday, May 20, Cumberland Chapter volunteer leader Rick Clewett and Water Sentinels Deputy Director Tim Guilfoile, below, traveled to the mountains of eastern Kentucky to spend the weekend sampling water quality in local streams and training other volunteers to do water-quality monitoring in the Appalachian coal fields.
The training took place at Mountain Justice Summer, an annual weeklong training camp where veteran and novice activists develop the skills and the vision to abolish mountaintop removal coal mining and work instead to build healthy, self-reliant communities in southern Appalachia.
"About an hour before we started our training," Guilfoile says, "an enormous explosion took the top off an adjacent mountain in plain view of everyone at the camp. I ran for my camera and took pictures to document this sad event." Below, Guilfoile's photos of the blasting in process, and the same ridgeline scraped clean after the fact.
"I've seen the aftermath of mountaintop removal, but this was the first time I'd ever witnessed the enormity of the explosive force that is destroying the Appalachian Mountains," Guilfoile says. "These explosives are up to 100 times as strong as those that tore open the Oklahoma City federal building, and they blast up to 800 feet off the mountaintops."
The explosions took place on Black Mountain, the highest mountain in Kentucky, which peaks out at 4,145 feet and straddles the border with Virginia. "If the mining company was trying to scare the activists off, it had the opposite effect," says Guilfoile. "The blast got people really fired up. Now more than ever, they have the fire in the belly to stop this damnation."
Guilfoile and Clewett trained 15 new water-quality monitoring volunteers, many of whom live in the coal fields. "Armed with their new skills, they will now help in our quest to document how the waters of Appalachia are being ravaged by mountaintop removal," Guilfoile says. "These volunteers will play a critical role in protecting the mountains and the people of the region."
Until recently the Kentucky side of Black Mountain was untouched by mountaintop removal. Kingdom Come State Park—the highest state park in Kentucky—is located on nearby Pine Mountain, as is Kentenia State Forest, and the Jefferson National Forest provides abundant recreational opportunities.
One of the most dramatic, if sobering, views to be had from Black Mountain is from the state line on State Highway 160, which crosses the shoulder of the mountain. The drive up the Kentucky side is through a still-intact mixed hardwood forest. But mere yards after the "Welcome to Virginia" sign, one is greeted with a devastated moonscape on the Virginia side, where mountaintop removal has been allowed to run amok.
Below, a view of the Kentucky side of Black Mountain, and a view of the Virginia side.
The historic towns of Benham and Lynch, Kentucky, lie in the narrow Looney Creek Valley on the northern side of Black Mountain. Residents of these former mining camps have been working for years to build the rudiments of a tourist economy. Benham is home to the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, housed in the old coal company store, and Lynch is home to the Portal #31 Underground Mine exhibit, a brand new tourist attraction.
Below, downtown Benham today, and as it appeared in the 1920s.
Residents of Benham, Lynch, and the nearby town of Cumberland took the initiative to secure state and federal grants to purchase a historic coal property and turn it into the Coal Mining Museum, which opened in 1994, and convert an old school house into a bed-and-breakfast. The Portal #31 Mine exhibit opened in October 2009 at a cost of $2.5 million.
But tourists are unlikely to flock to an area where the mountains have been blown up and the creeks poisoned. In 2010, concerns over the threat mountaintop removal posed to the area's ecosystems and water prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to designate Black Mountain as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Residents of Benham and Lynch hope the designation protects their water supply as well as their budding tourist trade.
In 1917 the U.S. Coal & Coke Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, built the community of Lynch, then the world's largest coal camp with about 10,000 residents. On February 12, 1923, the world's record for coal production in a single 9-hour shift was achieved at Portal #31 when miners produced 12,820 tons of coal, filling 256 railcars. Lynch remained the largest company-owned town in Kentucky through the end of World War II.
Below, downtown Lynch in its heyday, and as it appears today.
The town was also notable for its tradition of African American coal miners. In the 1920s, nearly 20 percent of Lynch's miners were black, a figure that rose to well over 50 percent by the late 1940s. Sections of town were set aside for black residents, and the elementary and Lynch Colored High School were staffed with qualified black teachers with teaching degrees from Kentucky State University in Frankfort. The Lynch Colored school system was closed in 1964 and the students integrated into the previously all white Lynch school system.
The recently-opened Portal #31 exhibit allows visitors to tour an actual coal mine in old railcars, learning from animated exhibits devoted not just to the process of coal extraction, but to the mining life, including a history of the labor movement in the region. Outside Portal #31 stands a granite monument in tribute to John L. Lewis, longtime president of the United Mine Workers, and a memorial to U.S. Steel District #1 miners who died in mining accidents.
The Sierra Club's Cumberland Chapter, Beyond Coal Campaign, Environmental Law Program, and Water Sentinels are all working to stop mountaintop removal and help develop viable economic alternatives for the region. Here are brief video interviews with Stanley Sturgill, Carl Shoupe, and Elmer Lloyd, below, three ex-coal miners who have been speaking out against MTR.
"The Appalachian Mountains are the most biologically diverse region in the United States, and Kentucky's mountains are home to the headwaters of three major river networks that empty into the Ohio River, the largest tributary of the Mississippi River," says Guilfoile. "The destruction and contamination of the headwaters and minor tributaries have dire consequences for water quality, habitat and biological integrity for hundreds of miles downstream.
"And then there are the people. In my travels, I have met hundreds of people whose health has been compromised, whose homes have been damaged or destroyed, whose water has been contaminated and who no longer have a place to hunt or fish. Mountaintop removal mining has got to stop—and it must end now, if our planet and its people are to be safe and healthy."