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When Wall Street came to coal country: how a big-money gamble scarred Appalachia

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Mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia

Evan Osnos reports in the Guardian:

Once or twice a generation, Americans rediscover Appalachia. Sometimes, they come to it through caricature – the cartoon strip Li’l Abner or the child beauty pageant star Honey Boo Boo or, more recently, Buckwild, a reality show about West Virginia teenagers, which MTV broadcast with subtitles. Occasionally, the encounter is more compassionate. In 1962, the social critic Michael Harrington published The Other America, which called attention to what he described as a “vicious circle of poverty” that “twists and deforms the spirit”.

Around the turn of this century, hedge funds in New York and its environs took a growing interest in coalmines. Coal never had huge appeal to Wall Street investors – mines were dirty, old-fashioned and bound up by union contracts that made them difficult to buy and sell. But in the late 1990s, the growing economies of Asia began to consume more and more energy, which investors predicted would drive up demand halfway around the world, in Appalachia. In 1997, the Hobet mine, a 25-year-old operation in rural West Virginia, was acquired for the first time by a public company, Arch Coal. It embarked on a major expansion, dynamiting mountaintops and dumping the debris into rivers and streams. As the Hobet mine grew, it consumed the ridges and communities around it. Seen from the air, the mine came to resemble a giant grey amoeba – 22 miles from end to end – eating its way across the mountains.

Up close, the effects were far more intimate. When Wall Street came to coal country, it triggered a cascade of repercussions that were largely invisible to the outside world but of existential importance to people nearby.

Down a hillside from the Hobet mine, the Caudill family had lived and hunted and farmed for a century. Their homeplace, as they called it, was 30 hectares (75 acres) of woods and water. The Caudills were hardly critics of mining; many were miners themselves. John Caudill was an explosives expert until one day, in the 30s, a blast went off early and left him blind. His mining days were over, but his land was abundant, and John and his wife went on to have 10 children. They grew potatoes, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, beets and beans; they hunted game in the forests and foraged for berries and ginseng. Behind the house, a hill was dense with hemlocks, ferns and peach trees.

One by one, the Caudill kids grew up and left for school and work. They settled into the surrounding towns, but stayed close enough to return to the homeplace on weekends. John’s grandson, Jerry Thompson, grew up a half-hour down a dirt road. “I could probably count on one hand the number of Sundays I missed,” he said. His grandmother’s menu never changed: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn and cake. “You’d just wander the property for hours. I would have a lot of cousins there, and we would ramble through the barns and climb up the mountains and wade in the creek and hunt for crawdads.”

Before long, the Hobet mine surrounded the land on three sides, and Arch Coal wanted to buy the Caudills out. Some were eager to sell. “We’re not wealthy people, and some of us are better off than others,” Thompson said. One cousin told him, “I’ve got two boys I got to put through college. I can’t pass this up because I’ll never see $50,000 again.” He thought, “He’s right; it was a good decision for him.”

In the end, nine family members agreed to sell, but six refused, and Jerry was one of them. Arch sued all of them, arguing that storing coalmine debris constituted, in legal terms, “the highest and best use of the property”. The case reached the West Virginia supreme court, where a justice asked, sceptically, “The highest and best use of the land is dumping?”

Phil Melick, a lawyer for the company, replied: “It has become that.” He added: “The use of land changes over time. The value of land changes over time.”

Surely, the justice said, the family’s value of the property was not simply economic? It was, Melick maintained. “It has to be measured economically,” he said, “or it can’t be measured at all.”


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To their surprise, the Caudills won their case, after a fashion. They could keep 10 hectares – but the victory was fleeting. Beneath their feet, the land was becoming unrecognisable. Chemicals produced by the mountaintop mine were redrawing the landscape in a bizarre tableau. In streams, the leaves and sticks developed a thick copper crust from the buildup of carbonate, and rocks turned an inky black from deposits of manganese. In the Mud River, which ran beside the Caudills’ property, a US Forest Service biologist collected fish larvae with two eyes on one side of the head. He traced the disfigurements to selenium, a byproduct of mining, and warned, in a report, of an ecosystem “on the brink of a major toxic event”. (In 2010, the journal Science published a study of 78 West Virginia streams near mountaintop-removal mines, which found that nearly all of them had elevated levels of selenium.)

This was more than just the usual tradeoff between profit and pollution, another turn in the cycle of industry and cleanup. Mountaintop removal was, fundamentally, a more destructive realm of technology. It had barely existed until the 90s, and it took some time before scientists could measure the effects on the land and the people. For ecologists, the southern Appalachians was a singular domain – one of the most productive, diverse temperate hardwood forests on the planet. For aeons, the hills had contained more species of salamander than anywhere else, and a lush canopy that attracts neotropical migratory birds across thousands of miles to hatch their next generation. But a mountaintop mine altered the land from top to bottom: after blasting off the peaks – which miners call the “overburden” – bulldozers pushed the debris down the hillsides, where it blanketed the streams and rivers. Rainwater filtered down through a strange human-made stew of metal, pyrite, sulphur, silica, salts and coal, exposed to the air for the first time. The rain mingled with the chemicals and percolated down the hills, funnelling into the brooks and streams and, finally, into the rivers on the valley floor, which sustained the people of southern West Virginia. 

Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biologist, who spent years tracking the effects of the Hobet mine, told me: “The aquatic insects coming out of these streams are loaded with selenium, and then the spiders that are eating them become loaded with selenium, and it causes deformities in fish and birds.” The effects distorted the food chain. Normally, tiny insects hatched in the water would fly into the woods, sustaining toads, turtles and birds. But downstream, scientists discovered that some species had been replaced by flies usually found in wastewater treatment plants. By 2009, the damage was impossible to ignore. In a typical study, biologists tracking a migratory bird called the cerulean warbler found that its population had fallen by 82% in 40 years. The 2010 report in Science concluded that the impacts of mountaintop-removal mining on water, biodiversity and forest productivity were “pervasive and irreversible”. Mountaintop mines had buried more than 1,000 miles of streams across Appalachia, and, according to the EPA, altered 2,200 sq miles of land – an area bigger than Delaware.

Before long, scientists discovered impacts on the people, too. Each explosion at the top of a mountain released elements usually kept underground – lead, arsenic, selenium, manganese. The dust floated down on to the drinking water, the back-yard furniture, and through the open windows. Researchers led by Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, published startling links between mountaintop mines and health problems of those in proximity to it, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects. Between 1979 and 2005, the 70 Appalachian counties that relied most on mining had recorded, on average, more than 2,000 excess deaths each year. Viewed one way, those deaths were the cost of progress, the price of prosperity that coal could bring. But Hendryx also debunked that argument: the deaths cost $41bn a year in expenses and lost income, which was $18bn more than coal had earned the counties in salaries, tax revenue and other economic benefits. Even in the pure economic terms that the companies used, Hendryx observed, mountaintop mining had been a terrible deal for the people who lived there.


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O
ne afternoon, I hiked up through the woods behind the Caudills’ house to see the changes in the land. By law, mines are required to “remediate” their terrain, returning it to an approximation of its former condition. But, far from the public eye, the standards can be comically lax. After climbing through the trees for a while, I emerged into a sun-drenched bowl of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:26 am

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