Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Sufferings

President Obama recently toured the Gulf to see firsthand the massive oil spill that has been plaguing us for more than a month now. He also convened a long press conference about the spill. We see coverage of the spill at the top of the news, often accompanied by a live shot of the oil pumping out into the ocean from a camera situated a mile below the surface.

I can’t imagine the president doing a flyover of a mountaintop removal site, or holding a press conference about it. And I’ve certainly never seen a mountain blown up on national television—not even once, much less every morning on the Today show.

Yet I would venture to say that mountaintop removal (MTR) is as devastating as the oil spill in the Gulf.

I don’t mean to compare suffering. What I’m saying is actually the opposite of comparison: they’re equally as bad, yet everyone is outraged about the spill while very few people even know about MTR.

Both the oil spill and MTR are environmental, cultural, economic, and health disasters. Both are devastating an entire way of life.

Every time someone says that more than 100 miles of shoreline has been affected by the oil spill, I want to shout that at least 1, 500 miles of waterways have been lost forever in Appalachia.

Every time I think about the spill I also think of the pollution pumping into our creeks and rivers by way of MTR. I think of all the people in the fishing industry whose jobs are threatened by the spill, and then of all the hard-working Appalachians who can’t find a good-paying job besides the mines because we live in a mono-economy created and fostered by the coal industry. I think of how the spill could affect the Gulf so badly that the region’s fishing industry could be wiped out. Immediately I think of how mountaintop removal is hurting all the industries in Appalachia, particularly timber and tourism. New economy doesn’t want to come into a place that has been turned into a war zone with pollution, constant blasting, and intimidation.

Recently a friend of mine pointed out that “we’re witnessing the death of the Gulf.” It’s a heartbreaking prospect, but one that seems true. As of this writing, we’ve been witnessing that for forty-four days. Our president recently said this about the spill: “Every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people…, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us.” Couldn’t he say the same about MTR, which assaults all that we have in common, namely the air and the water, as author and environmentalist Erik Reese has pointed out? We’ve been witnessing the death of the mountains for much, much longer. If you trace it back to when mountaintop removal started, about 30 years ago, that’d be 10, 950 days. A lot more than 44.

Most of the people who live on the Gulf are not wealthy. Those in the fishing industry are much like our underground miners: hard-working, determined, and very proud of their jobs. The big difference is that since the Gulf is not caught up in a mono-economy, we actually have fishermen on the news complaining about the oil companies. Here in Appalachia, miners fear they will lose their jobs and we’ve been taught by the industry that if we say anything at all against coal, we’re downright unpatriotic.

Sadly, the lack of outrage over MTR may boil down to images and quick definitions. It’s easy to turn the spill into a quick sound bite (Oil is pumping into the ocean) and not so easy to do the same with MTR, which is a much more complicated issue; for one thing, it’s hard to convince people that to be against MTR does not mean one is against miners. Most of the MTR opponents count miners as one of the reasons they’re in this fight to begin with.

And there is that dramatic, sickening image that is easily captured (the oil pumping into the ocean) and put on the morning news shows. A camera can’t quite capture the scope of MTR. Even seeing it in person can’t really do it justice. The only way one can truly take in the devastation is to do a fly-over, so the sheer magnitude of it can be realized. Which is another reason why Obama should do a fly-over of Appalachia, the same way he’s done in the Gulf.

The major difference between the spill and MTR is that the spill was a preventable accident, while MTR is not only intentional, but also sanctioned by our government. Those who are trying to stop it are being called things like “greeniacs,” “atheists,” and being compared to Osama Bin Laden by Massey CEO Don Blankenship. T-shirts sold at my local flea market encourage people to “Save a miner’s job: Shoot a tree-hugger.”

I appreciate the attention Obama is paying to the Oil Spill. I especially appreciate that he took time out of his press conference to talk about this being a wake-up call, a time to start thinking about renewable energy. It’s great to hear a president talk about that. I especially appreciate how much better this administration is on the issue than the last one was. We actually have an EPA that is doing something now, such as actually examining permits before rubber-stamping them.

That’s great, but it’s time to do more about it. Obama is doing a lot of great talk but it’s time to start walking the walk.

It’s time to start talking about sustainable jobs for miners who are losing theirs to machines on MTR sites. It’s time to try to salvage these devastated MTR sites into the only thing they’re really usable for now: wind farms. It’s time that legislators started talking to the president about the first renewable energy jobs going to miners.

Most of all, it’s time to see mountaintop removal as being as devastating an environmental disaster as the spill. Because it is.


1. Even the coal industry’s own website shows that more than 30,000 miners jobs have been lost in Kentucky alone since the advent of MTR in the late 70s.

2. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McQuaid has written an excellent overview of how the new EPA has become more effective.


4. For more on intimidation and the complexities of MTR, see this piece in the Washington Post:

5. For more on Erik Reese and the assault on the commons (air, water, mountains, etc.), go here:


Kathleen said...

Thank you so much for this excellent comparison. It helped me understand. I think it could help the President understand, too.

Keith said...

Excellent points.

Rhonda L. M. Tipton said...

Grief won't heal our mountains. Action can heal the people. It's long past time for action; the world beyond our borders needs to know this. :( We need this earth to live, and if anyone thinks that the seas are not connected to the land, to these very mountains... well, it's senseless. My soul aches to see the damages done by human hands in the name of nothing more than plain greed.

Alice said...

We should all copy, with permission, "The Sufferings" and mail it to every one of our government officials, state and federal. A mountain of mail might get their attention.

stacy said...

As saddened & outraged as I am at both catastrophes, I am also to blame for them. Every light switch I've turned on & every gas tank I've filled have contributed to the devastation.

Maria said...

Very well said. I also keep thinking about mountaintop removal and will continue to contact my elected officials demanding that this awful practice stop. How advanced are we really if we have to blow mountains apart and drill thousands of feet under the sea to satisfy our addiction to fossil fuels?

We are showing the PBS series Unnatural Causes later this month during lunchtime at work. One of the episodes is about how economic conditions in certain communities affect public health. The difference in how the US and Sweden handle unemployment, for example, is like night and day.

Silas House said...

Hey Alice,
Fee free to copy and send "The Sufferings" to anyone you'd like. Thanks for your kind words.

Makalani said...

You are being so respectful of the people that live in the Gulf region in this post. But, we know there is one big difference between MTR and this Gulf oil disaster, you allude to it, and that is that MTR is no accident, and is government sanctioned.

David Miller said...

Thank you, Silas. You are an incredible spokesperson for our region.

Anonymous said...

Nice to read this. Just yesterday I posted on a WV blog I was kinda resenting the attention the Gulf coast was getting. You put it so much better.

TenThousandThings said...

schThank you very much, Silas. I attended one of your writing seminars at Rollins, and have been following you every since. Your blog is soulful and eloquent.

Increasingly, the U.S. government is enabling the colonization of its entire territory.

This contempt for nature and traditional communities resulted in the military explosion of around 1,000 nuclear bombs in Native American lands in the Southwest during the post-WWII period, devastating the landscape and people there. Radiation from the blasts floated all over North America.

I heard Jeff Biggers say that the coal industry destruction of landscape and exploitation of people began earlier -- during Thomas Jefferson's tenure. African American slaves were sent into the mines.

Appalachia (my beloved ancestral home is in E. Tenn) has been treated contemptuously as a domestic colony in many ways: to exploit resources and cheap labor. The rich culture has been misrepresented and ridiculed, as a means to justify this inhumane treatment.

The media and U.S. government attention towards the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico is strange. The meta-message is that there's nothing the government or BP can do and if citizens try to take action into their own hands (using time-tested hay to soak up oil), they will be arrested. So I don't know if this kind of attention is helpful. It actually seems to serve to desensitize and demoralize people.

That said, and realizing the federal government and corporatized media is not going to bring attention to the destruction of the Appalachian mountains, we need to work as citizens to create attention ourselves.

There's a new initiative, This is Ecocide (, which is an international attempt to connect the dots in the big picture of what is happening: how certain forces are destroying our environment and traditional communities to plunder resources. It might be helpful for Applachians to build solidarity with people across the world who are paying the costs, including tremendous emotional sufering of the plunder of their natural worlds.

There are actually people along the Gulf who think that the lack of action in protecting the ocean and coastline (there are many available technologies not being use or way under-utilized), is intentional. I hope the lack of action is the result of incompetence and/or negligence inthe case of the Gulf.

There is no excuse for what the U.S. government is allowing to happen in Appalachian to these beautiful, ancient mountains and traditional American communities.

In solidarity from East Tennessee, Florida, and Kyoto, Japan.

Jean Downey

Anonymous said...


To me, the only solution to the problem of MTR IS a jobs program. As you say, the fear of losing their jobs pits miners against anyone who speaks out against MTR. Disagreements about mining sets friends and family members against each other. It will continue that way as long as people's health care and survival depend on wages from mining. A government-funded jobs program in this part of the country, with the jobs all being work that would make this a better place, as the CCC work did in the 1930s, is sorely needed. But as long as people are afraid of "big government" and feel that business is their friend (and that profits are essential to democracy and Christianity) that won't happen. More people are seeing what greed is doing to the common legacy of air, water, and land--thanks to you and others like you.

On a different note, to some of us, "atheist" isn't a bad word--though I know to the name-callers you're talking about, it is.



Beth Wellington said...

Thanks for writing this. Will spread the word, with your permission. Already posted a link on my fb page.

Jeannette said...

Yes...keep telling the story and ideally often to persons who vote for those who "can" or will create protections and to those elected folks themselves. Looking to the full spectrum of consequences is always a challenge at all levels of life and decision making, but it is large scale no-going-back-to-what-once-was losses such as these that should be our constant primer as we set out to "strengthen that which remains." Thank you for being a voice "crying in the wilderness..."

Dory Adams said...

Excellent post. I'm forwarding the link to others via e-mail and will also include the link in my next blog post.

cheshire said...

well written, astute thoughts that haven't been enunciated enough! i've been shooting mtr and the struggle against it in the coal river valley of west virginia for about nine months, but i may be leaving soon to clean up oil in the gulf, and necessarily, shoot down there, esp. with the absurd media censorship that's restricting public images and information regarding the spill right now.

Sandra said...

Hey Silas,

Great post! This is Sandra w.App Voices. Could we possibly repost this to our blogs?

Randy said...

Well said Silas - I have taken the liberty to post to my fb page.

Benjamin said...

Excellent thought piece. I just wanted to point out that the Gulf was a national sacrifice area long before the present spill; not quite to the same extent as southern Appalachia, but an internal colony nonetheless. Regardless of spills, the drilling industry has severely damaged significant aquatic habitat. Furthermore, we have used the Gulf to dump the wastes from our nation's dirty, thriftless food production system, creating a hypoxic dead zone that stretches for thousands of square miles. And the region has horrendous air quality, largely a result of the refinery business.
So I don't think it is the particular geographic location of the spill that has the press in arms (although maybe so with the Florida Coast), but rather the sensationalism of the story. As you said, the real difference is that the spill is an "accident" that we now can't control, while MTR is a steady, purposeful, government-sanctioned offensive. The same contrast can be drawn between the hysteria surrounding the 3 mile mile island nuclear accident and the comparative silence as we sit back and watch the pollution from coal fired power plants kill thousands of people each year.
It will take a long campaign of compassionate education to make folks understand that the gradual, predictable killers deserve as much (or more) attention as the sudden, uncontrollable ones. (I cannot stress the importance of the "compassionate" element enough. We cannot change people's minds if we condescend and feel superior.)
Thanks for doing your part!

rainbow said...

I love the way you write! Your emotions and passion leap off the page. Thank you for giving voice to the Mountains...the hills are alive and crying out to us.

Betty Dotson-Lewis said...

As a resident of West Virginia, the mountaintop removal area. I can see the smooth crest of the mountain which was a jagged natural rise - a sludge pond is behind that smoothness. One is right above a facility which used to house an elementary school until the school was closed. Now, the facility houses a home for wayward children.

I too, like Silas House, encourage the President to take an aerial journey over our destroyed heritage, our mountains. However, I believe some of the reasons the past, present and future of mountaintop removal remains in the hands of (our) West Virginia politicians. When top ranking officials are in favor of mountaintop removal and tell those in D.C. West Virginia cannot survive without this form of the removal of coal - why would a President think differently. Also, the miners are scared to death there will be no other jobs and even though for many it is not their choice of coal mining - they think it is better than welfare. Please understand until our top ranking political officials take a stand to stop mountaintop removal - it is going to be very difficult to get the President to stop this devastation to one of the most beautiful, rugged mountain regions in Appalachia.

PS. I do believe Sen. Byrd was lending in the direction of finding alternative methods - now, he is gone. We can only pray that Gov. Manchin will appoint who cares more about the people and the environment (the mountains) than the absentee coal barons.
By Betty Dotson-Lewis

Beth Wellington said...

Betty Dotson-Lewis--I don't hold out much hope that Manchin will appoint someone to fill Senator Byrd's seat who will "who cares more about the people and the environment (the mountains) than the absentee coal barons." There were times that he seemed to be chastising Byrd for even the small steps he took...and Manchin appears to be totally beholden....

Brenda said...

A GREAT post, Silas! I agree w/ everything you said. I've told everyone I know to read it!

julesrules said...

Wonderful post! Coming fom Harlan, Ky., myself, I see firsthand the destruction MTR has done to my beloved mountains. I recently blogged about this as well. It hurts my heart.

man with van in London said...

Its good to find people like you and blogs like this, where people share their personal experience from their encouters with different removalists. If you ask me that means a lot.

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