Its contents are not available online (as far as I can tell), but the recent issue of Harper’s Magazine contains a piece that makes it worth buying on the newsstand. It’s called "Death of a Mountain," by Erik Reece. The subtitle is "radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia," and apparently Reece is at work on a book on the subject. (For a quick primer on mountaintop-removal mining, go here.)

It is — and I say this as someone who reads a lot of depressing stuff — one of the most disheartening things I’ve ever come across. It is truly monstrous what’s going on in Appalachia, difficult even to comprehend. I’ve been faintly cognizant of the issue, but Reece’s piece really paints the picture. Some of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems in the country are simply being blown up, irrevocably destroyed. The poor surrounding communities suffer from polluted water and air, denuded landscapes, and showers of debris (last year a boulder dislodged by a mining explosion crushed and killed a three-year-old boy in his bed). The process has been aided and abetted by the Bush administration

Worse, the mines provide almost no jobs — a crew of nine people can blow the top off a mountain and dig out the coal below — and most of the coal is sold outside the state. Virtually none of the enormous profits benefit local communities. There’s a reason those communities are, and remain, some of the poorest in the country. The presence of coal is an almost unmitigated curse for the region. But by and large, poor Appalachians view environmentalists as their enemies, people who want to steal their jobs and economic livelihoods, who care more about forest critters than about them.

The injustices involved — both natural and socioeconomic — are tragic on a scale that boggles understanding.

Compare the amount of attention this gets to the amount lavished on the Arctic Refuge. Why is that? At risk of offending some delicate sensibilities, I’ve come to think that the refuge plays the same role for the left that Terri Schiavo played for the right: It’s almost an abstraction, distant and uncomplicated, a blank slate where we can project our own virtue. In contrast, Appalachia has a deep and complicated history and is populated by working class, culturally conservative whites — the kind of people that upper-middle-class lefties refer to behind closed doors as "white trash."

But make no mistake, there’s a huge crime taking place, the effects of which will be felt by our grandchildren, and theirs. Ecosystems are being wiped out, and vulnerable communities along with them. We need to force this stuff into the mainstream media. I can’t imagine any human being with a heart or a brain remaining unaffected.

(If you’d like to do something to help, head over to Mountain Justice Summer and sign up. Thanks to them for the picture above.)