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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Mountaintop removal speaker rallies students to take action

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Lenny Kohm, the campaign director for Appalachian Voices, spoke about the environmentally unsound practice of mountaintop removal Sept.10 in Bryan Junior Auditorium.

Mountaintop removal is the process of extracting coal from within a mountain by clear-cutting all the trees and then using explosives to blast the top of the mountain off.

“Instead of taking the coal off the mountain, they take the mountain off the coal,” said Kohm.

Mountaintop removal mining is cheap and efficient but it is done at a steep environmental cost. The fill, or rubble that was once solid rock, is dumped in valleys and streams that lie between two mountains. This is extremely disrupting to stream and valley ecosystems. Mineral content of streams is disturbed and biodiversity tends to decrease.

When the mountaintop is blown off by explosives made with ammonium nitrate and diesel, sulfur compounds are released into the atmosphere, which pollute the air and can cause structures to corrode. Kohm reported that 30,000 children die each year from asthma directly related to coal mining.

“It’s a matter of providing power at the expense of human lives and environmental damages I would have never imagined,” said first-year Julia Hohn. “There are other ways to generate power that should be considered.”

In Appalachia, a region of which West Virginia is part, about 100 metric tons of explosives are used each day for mountaintop removal. More than 400,000 acres of mountains have been targeted, and over 1000 streams have been buried with fill. The once beautiful mountain scenery, regarded as an important part of the culture and history of Appalachia, has been tarnished.

Mountaintop removal also causes erosion, which can cause serious flooding. Kohm described his own personal experience on a night when flooding was so bad that a young man was drowned trying to cross a ditch in front of his house.

“They’ve taken all the trees off the mountain, there’s nothing to hold the water, it rains (a) lot there, and people are being killed,” said Kohm. “Literally tonight, there are parents who will put their kids to bed with their clothes on in case they have to evacuate (due to sudden flooding).”

The presentation featured a short film clip about mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Students saw pictures of the land before and after, and watched Appalachian community members describe how mountaintop removal has directly affected their lives.
In the video, many Appalachians expressed that they felt they were losing their identity and history as the mountains were destroyed. Others described a sense of financial insecurity due to property devaluation and destruction related to mountain top removal. One woman said that after destruction from flooding, the property she had lived in all her life plunged in value from $45,000 to $12,000.

“Mountain top removal is a big problem in West Virginia, because, as I found out during the seminar, a lot of traditional coal miners have lost their jobs and that is really devastating to West Virginia’s economy as well as its environment,” said junior and native West Virginian Shepherd Lashley.

In fact, 10,000 traditional coal miners were put out of work between 1990 and 1997 with the introduction of mountaintop removal.

“It comes back to us because we are the ones that are using the electricity that comes from mountaintop removal,” said junior Gabriella Spang. “That’s the most important point from my perspective. It’s like ‘Look what our addiction to electricity is leading us to do.’ That’s really the thing that motivates me to use less electricity: thinking about where it’s coming from when I flip on the switch.”

Some students felt that while Kohm clearly conveyed the urgency of the issue, he merely skimmed the surface of the exact environmental and economical damages involved with mountaintop removal, and perhaps more importantly, what alternate solutions could be implemented.

“What I was kind of missing from the presentation was a solution to mountaintop removal besides just ending it, because it doesn’t seem like the coal mining companies have that in their agenda,” said Lashley. “It was kind of disheartening not to hear more about the stats and figures about the economic impacts on my state but I had a good time and I learned a lot.”

Kohm’s primary goal was to convince Guilford students to write letters to their congressmen asking them to vote in favor of HR2169, an amendment to the Clean Water Act.

“(The bill) would redefine fill as waste so it couldn’t be dumped into valleys or streams which would make it too expensive to continue mountaintop removal,” Kohm said.

The Clean Water Act currently prohibits any dumping of “waste” into bodies of water, but the fill from mountaintop removal, despite its polluting effects, is not yet officially considered waste.

Howard Coble, who represents Guilford County, presently opposes the bill.

Kohm urged the audience that one person can make a difference by writing a letter expressing concern. If a politician knows that the people he represents are concerned about a particular issue, he will consider his options more carefully.
In the case of mountaintop removal, said Kohm, “It’s not going to stop until we decide it’s going to stop.”

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