Book blasts mountaintop-removal mining

Large-format books with high-quality photography usually are filled with images of beautiful flowers or castles or landscapes, and are destined to gather dust on a coffee table.

Not this one.

Plundering Appalachia: The Tragedy of Mountaintop-Removal Mining (Earth Aware Editions $49.95 hardback, $39.95 paperback) has page after page of scarred mountains, sludge ponds, dust-caked buildings and water so dirty that it is red, orange or even black.

Then there are the words.

"The original sin of coal mining." "Ecoterrorism on American soil." "Exploding mountains, missing wildlife." "The destruction of Appalachia."

Tom Butler, a Kentucky native who is co-editor with photographer George Wuerther, says the book is part of an abolitionist movement aimed at putting an end to the mining practice and, ultimately, the use of coal as a fuel.

"Mountaintop-removal mining does not need to be reformed; it does not need to be mitigated; it needs to be abolished," Butler said in an interview from his home in Vermont.

The issue is drawing increasing interest across the country, and particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said that is partly because environmentalists and the media, including the Herald-Leader, usually show only mountains that have been ripped apart, and not the reclamation that follows.

Ending coal mining in Kentucky would mean the loss of 6,000 jobs and $350 million in wages into the region, Caylor said.

Butler counters that modern techniques for removing coal from the earth mean fewer jobs, and more pollution and disruption.

The heart of the book, Butler said, is a series of first-person testimonies from people who live in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

There is Terry Blanton, talking about raising children in Dayhoit in Harlan County, which later became a federal Superfund site because of polluted water from a mining-related factory.

There is Lucious Thompson, who talks about living beneath the blasting of a mountaintop-removal site in McRoberts in Letcher County.

And there is Pam Maggard of Sassafras, in Knott County, who says her children can play in the street only on Sundays because that's when coal trucks don't run.

There also are essays by some better-known names: Wendell Berry, the Henry County author and farmer; Erik Reece, an author who teaches writing at the University of Kentucky; and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

They and others set a larger scene, Butler said, drawing "those connections between mountaintop-removal mining in Perry County or Harlan County or Knott County and the global consequences of climate change and a failed energy policy based on a non-renewable fossil fuel that happens to be the dirtiest of all fossil fuels."

One of the essays is by Ken Heckler, a former congressman from West Virginia, recalling that in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was momentum for an outright ban on strip mining.

"After three decades of expanding destruction," he wrote, "I remain convinced that the only solution to surface coal mining is abolition."

Although the earlier effort failed, Butler said, that momentum is building again against what he called "strip mining on steroids."

He hopes his book will be picked up by people who are leaning in that direction and who want to take it to their Sunday school classes, or Rotary Club meetings, or to share it with their elected representatives.

The final essay is from Jerry Hardt of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. He lays out an action plan that includes speaking out to elected officials and others, demanding green energy options from local utilities, and insisting on a national energy policy that emphasizes renewable energy and conservation.

"We must have a vision," Hardt wrote. "We must believe that mountaintop-removal mining can be stopped."