Obama Ends 150-Year War of Strip-Mining in 24 States: Mountaintop Removal Loses Its Groove.

Yeah, I’ve been wanting to wake up to that headline for years, too. Instead, I read another Coal Tattoo headline about President Obama genuflecting in front of Big Coal.

But don’t be fooled on April 1st today: Mountaintop removal, the process of blowing up mountains in Appalachia to scoop out the last tiny seams of dirty coal, ain’t new. Nor is the devastating strip-mining of coal limited to the Appalachian coalfields. Nor is it abating.

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The war goes on.

To be sure: Strip-mining, which provides the lion’s share of our dirty coal today, takes place in 24 states and on several sovereign Native American reservations. You can find the nearest strip-mining near you, from Alabama to Wyoming—even in Louisiana, New Mexico and Kansas!–on this handy official Energy Information Administration chart.

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The largest strip-mine is now slated for Indiana.

Just last week, protesters were arrested in an attempt to stop the approval of a massive strip-mine in the pristine Otter Creek valley in eastern Montana.

Let’s move from Montana to mountaintop removal in four Appalachian states: Mountaintop removal got its groove in Fayette County, West Virginia, in 1970. The first mountaintop removal operation was launched on Cannelton Hollow in area once called Bullpush Mountain. Forty years later, mountaintop removal operations have destroyed over 500 mountains, 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests, and neighboring communities, displaced miners, and stripmined the cultural landscape in the Appalachian region.

The “rape of Appalachia,” as eastern Kentucky author Harry Caudill declared in his classic portrait of Appalachia, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, “got its practice” in Illinois. He was referring to the fact that the nation’s first commercial strip mines took place in eastern and southern Illinois in the 1850s, when horses and scrapers began to bite into the hills and forests and farmland.

Of course, Caudill overlooked the fact that African slaves had been used as human bulldozers in the Virginia coal outcroppings since the mid-1700s.

But Caudill understood, like anyone in the coalfields from Alaska to North Dakota to Texas to Pennsylvania, that strip-mining more than strips the land; it strips the traces of any human contact. It results in a form of historical ethnic cleansing or historicide—the killing or removal of people from their histories, relegating them to the scrap pile of a vanished past.

In truth, strip-mining and its unhinged offspring of mountaintop removal are not only crimes against nature and our communities. They are crimes against our history. They allow us to intentionally strip away the most troubling issues of the coal industry from our historical memory.

The birth of strip-mining in the 1850s in eastern Illinois churned the historical memory of Kickapoo villages into ashes and spoil piles, stagnant mine ponds and pits; the first mechanized strip-mining machines rattled their blades across the land cleared of virgin forests, creeks, and thousand-year-old Native settlements.

The full-scale launch of strip mining–the process of clear-cutting the forests and dynamiting or detonating explosives across the landscape and then using heavy machinery to remove anything overlaying the mineral seams–took a giant leap in 1910 when steam-powered shovels rolled from the railroad tracks and tore pits out of the land with increasing ease. Within a decade, electrical power equipment had been developed: shovels with 12-cubic-yard dippers mounted on the end of a 95-foot boom. They seemed like enormous monsters at the time. But they were tiny. By the 1950s, over a third of all coal in the region was being strip-mined by “walking draglines,” stripping shovels that towered over 250 feet tall and sported buckets of 35 cubic yards.

Strip mining got its real groove when the “Captain” arrived in the 1960s. At one point considered to be the largest dragline in the world, the “Captain” stood twenty- one stories tall, weighed over 28 million pounds, and could sweep up two seams of coal simultaneously in its 180-cubic-yard dipper.

The Captain was a monster. It dug out craters with the panache of a meteor, and once it had finished reaping all the coal out of the area, it walked itself like a surreal robot skyscraper down the road to the next mine.

It was the tallest building in most coalfield regions, though a transient one.

By 1940, Illinois became the national leader in strip-mining coal. It was not limited, of course, to the hilly ranges across southern Illinois. Throughout the midwestern states, over a million acres of prime farmland were lost to strip mining in the mid-twentieth century. The unbridled destruction of fertile farmland in central and western Illinois actually gave rise to a national movement to regulate surface mining. As early as 1940, Senator Everett Dirksen, a conservative Republican from Illinois, introduced federal legislation to require coal companies to reclaim the land to a certain degree of sustainable post-
mining use.

This concern fell on deaf ears. Dirksen’s bill didn’t even manage to get out of a subcommittee, but it marked the beginnings of a new awareness about strip mining.

By the 1960s, an extraordinary alliance of farm organizations, community groups, and coalfield delegations from across the nation united in a campaign to abolish strip mining. Millions of acres across the nation resembled, according to the coalfield residents, the “aftermath of Hiroshima.”

It was not only a matter of the land, but also the economy. With 60 percent of our national coal production coming from strip-mining operations, everyone in the coalfields knew that the massive machinery and explosives would eventually wipe out the need for two out of every three coal-mining jobs. Strip-mining operations had been pounding the final nails in the coffin of the large-scale shaft-mine employers in the region for years.

This was the cruel irony of strip mining, of course: It also stripped the miners of their jobs, polluted the communities, and devastated the region for any other economic development. In fact, more jobs would be lost over the next decades to scaled-down heavy-machine-driven strip-mining operations than those impacted by any environmental legislation in the country.

In 1971, West Virginia congressman Ken Hechler had also spelled out the impending impact of strip mining on his region’s broader economy:

“What about the jobs that will be lost if the strippers continue to ruin the tourist industry, wash away priceless topsoil, fill people’s yards with the black muck, which runs off from a strip mine, rip open the bellies of the hills and spill their guts in spoil-banks? This brutal and hideous contempt for valuable land is a far more serious threat to the economy than a few thousand jobs which are easily transferable into the construction industry, or to fill the sharp demand for workers in underground mines.”

Forty years later, Hechler’s prediction has become Appalachia’s nightmare.

Yet, there was a certain banality of evil in the strip-mining debate. The movement to abolish surface mining was effectively derailed by the Goliath-like resources of the coal companies, whose sway on Capitol Hill was no less powerful in the state and township corridors. In the end, federal legislators opted to “regulate” strip mining, instead of banning its undeniable wrath of destruction in the coal areas.

Sound familiar?

In 1977, in the afterglow of the OPEC energy crisis and a new scramble toward coal production, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, an admittedly “watered down bill” that would enhance “the legitimate and much- needed production of coal.” The president declared that it would also “assuage the fears that the beautiful areas where coal is produced were being destroyed.”

Few residents in the coalfields agreed. In his classic To Save the Land and People: A History of Opposition to Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia, Chad Montrie described the sense of betrayal of the Appalachian coalition working with the midwestern heartland advocates, and those living in the ruins of the strip mines:

“The present bill was so weakened by compromise that it no longer promised effective control of the coal industry or adequate protection of citizens’ rights. A press release listed the provisions (or absent provisions) the Coalition found particularly troublesome: an eighteen-month exemption of small operators; recognition of mountaintop removal as an approved mining technique (rather than a variance requiring special approval); language allowing for variance from restoration to approximate original contour; failure to impose slope limitations (or a partial ban on contour mining); and failure to fully protect surface owner rights with a comprehensive consent clause.”

According to longtime anti-strip-mining activist Jane Johnson in Illinois, the act also allowed a flood of “grandfathering” of old mining contracts to circumvent the new requirements. Johnson wrote in the Illinois South newsletter in 1987, on the tenth anniversary of the surface-mining act: “People in the cornbelt felt betrayed.”

So did virtually every resident in the affected coalfields in the heartland, Appalachia, and the western tribal areas—across the 24 states of strip-mining glory.

And that betrayal continues today.

As foretold by Caudill, the connection between Appalachia and the Illinois coalfields intensified: Like the unintended consequences of outsourced war from a peace treaty, the Clean Air Act in 1990 not only dismantled the high-sulfur coal industry in Illinois, but also shifted our nation’s demand to Appalachia’s low-sulfur reserves, wildly escalating the process of mountaintop removal–the process of literally blowing up mountains and dumping the waste and overburden into the valleys and waterways.

Over the next decades, despite the new surface-mining laws, a land mass the size of some entire eastern states would be strip-mined and eliminated from our American maps.

Sure, the EPA blocked the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia last week—70-odd permits still remain in limbo, as 3 millions pounds of ANFO explode daily in WV and KY.

And the 150-year war of strip-mining rages on in the other 24 states.

It’s time to bring this war to an end.

Here’s a clip from the war and its impact on my own family in the southern Illinois coalfields:

Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation Books).