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December 18, 2009

Coal Miners Speak Out Against Mountaintop Removal

Photo by Matt Scully

Former coal miners Stanley Sturgill, Carl Shoupe, and Elmer Lloyd are proud of the Kentucky mountains they call home, and proud of their years of service in the mines. But all three have been turned into activists by their revulsion at the destruction being wrought by mountaintop-removal mining.

"This mountaintop removal is killing us here in eastern Kentucky," says Shoupe, a third-generation coal miner. "I was a deep miner, and I have relatives and friends who are miners. But in my opinion, if you can't deep-mine it, it ain't worth getting out of the mountain in the first place."

Photo by Mark Schmerling

"Mountaintop removal has destroyed so much around here," says Sturgill, a federal mine inspector for 41 years. "Everywhere I went, when I inspected a surface mine, it was the same sad-looking place."

Of even deeper concern to Sturgill is the region's water. "It's our most precious resource," he says. "If the valley fill permits now pending for this mountain are approved, we stand a good chance of losing our water. And once we lose our water, we've lost everything."

Photo by Brian Stansberry

Eastern Kentucky has been coal country for more than a century, experiencing several boom-and-bust cycles along the way. Strip mining began replacing the deep mines in the years following World War II, but it is in the past 20 years that mountaintop removal has come to dominate the coal-extraction process.

Photo by Mary Anne Hitt

Mountaintops are literally blasted to smithereens and the "overburden" dumped in the surrounding valleys, irrevocably altering the landscape, destroying forests and wildlife habitat, obliterating rivers and streams, and poisoning the watercourses that remain flowing. Nearly 450 miles of Kentucky streams have already been buried as a result of surface mining.

"I don't care how much gas or oil or coal you've got," says Shoupe. "If you don't have water, none of that means anything. Mountaintop-removal mining is destroying the land, it's destroying the water, and it's destroying anything my grandchildren might hope to enjoy about the mountain culture."

Photo by Flashdark

Lloyd, a deep miner for 13 years, spent $40,000 to build a fish pond behind his house for his retirement in 1993. "I loved it, my kids and grandkids loved it, friends camped around it -- I was proud of that pond," he says. But in 2006, a mining company began blasting the mountain above Lloyd's home, shaking his house and sending toxic runoff into the pond, killing the fish, below.

Photo by Elmer Lloyd

Lloyd called the Department of Fish & Wildlife, who evaluated the situation and concluded that if he couldn't find another source of water, he shouldn't keep the pond. Worried that the toxic water would foul downstream drinking supplies, Lloyd reluctantly consented to let the pond be removed. But he lacks the funds to do the job himself, and the state has yet to act.

There are 49 valley fill permits currently pending in Kentucky, 17 of them on Black Mountain, below, the highest peak in the state. Shoupe cites a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that the high ridges on Black Mountain would be prime sites for wind turbines. "But if they take 200 or 300 feet off this mountain, that potential will be gone," he says.

Photo by Matt Scully

Black Mountain straddles the Kentucky-Virginia border, and the urgency felt by Shoupe, Sturgill, and Lloyd is easily grasped by taking in the view from the pass at the state line. The Kentucky side, above, has thus far been protected. The Virginia side, below, has been subjected to mountaintop removal mining.

Photo courtesy of Southwings,

The Sierra Club is working with local organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to fight new valley fill permits, compel the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act, and urge Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to protect streams and communities from hazardous mining waste by fixing and enforcing the Stream Buffer Zone Rule to end the practice of mountaintop-removal mining.

Read the Sierra Club's action alert, send a petition to Secretary Salazar, and listen to what Carl Shoupe, Stanley Sturgill, and Elmer Lloyd have to say about mountaintop-removal mining.

Photos by Matt Scully


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