mtr and mountain
Mine site after mountaintop removal (top) Kayford, West Virginia; an undisturbed hill (bottom)
Photos: Seth Berthrong

To: Mr. Future-President
Senator McCain/Obama
From: Betty Dotson-Lewis

Dear Mr. Future President,

Just when I thought you had forgotten Appalachia and the people of the coal-bearing region (except for your interest in coal production), you come through in an amazing way ““ vowing to abolish mountaintop removal.

My name is Betty Dotson Lewis. I am from a small, rural, coalmining town in West Virginia. I was getting ready to put in a request that you leave me at least one mountain. Don’t take them all. Then I read Ken Ward’s article in the Charleston Gazette that both presidential candidates oppose mountaintop removal. Thank you. I can’t remember a president or presidential candidate or even a high ranking politician, except for former Congressman Ken Hechler who has openly supported stopping mountaintop removal.

You must know it is hard to breathe and walk and think and feel close to God without these mountains. Mr. Future President, how can mountain folk be mountain folk without mountains? Mountains hold you and protect you from winter’s storms and summer heat. The mountains have a healing effect and calm the soul. The mountains provide habitant for deer, squirrels, bears. They and lots of other animals have a hard time when mountaintop removal drives them out. Fish can’t live in streams filled with sludge. They can’t navigate. Apparently you understand all of this.

Having taken a stand to end mountaintop removal, you no doubt understand the bigger picture here — how important it is to protect this unique place and culture. Think about it. When all the mountains are leveled and the streams are filled up with sludge and water wells have sunk, one of the last recognized subcultures in this country will be wiped out. The people who live in these mountains, who raise gardens, hunt, fish, and camp, will have to go elsewhere. It will be hard to relocate and find the simplicity of this mountain life elsewhere.

Mr. Future President, going up against mountaintop removal is tough. Lots of people with lots of money support it. They can twist arms. They can influence lawyers and judges and jurors. Big time politicians support mountaintop removal. In fact, former West Virginia Senator Tracy Hylton’s company was the first to top off a mountain to extract the coal nearly forty years ago. The site, called Bullpush Mountain, is located in Fayette County, West Virginia, along Cannelton Hollow. Senator Hylton’s reasoning for destroying this mountain was to make level ground for business development. That was 1970. Nothing along those lines has happened yet. The place is odd looking with a flat grassy bed in the middle of mountains.

bullpush mountain

Bullpush Mountain, Fayette County, West Virginia, mined in 1970
Photo: WV Gazette

My home is in the heart of mountaintop-removal country; even so, most of what I’ve learned about this large scale strip-mining comes from what I have read and what friends outside the region have told me. All the scars are hidden from view. The miners travel great distances back in the mountains to work. If you live in one of the small, rural, coalmining towns or along the main road, you probably have no reason to go back in the mountains to see the destruction. We hear about flyovers but they are strictly for journalists and environmentalists. The regular person doesn’t have the time nor money to see mountaintop removal from the air; besides, if someone in your family were working on such a mining operation, they would not want you to take a flyover.

Where I worked, two topics were off limits: politics and mountaintop removal. The subject was rarely talked about because residents do not want to be forced out of the mountains. If they oppose mountaintop removal, then jobs will be threatened. Coal operators will not voluntarily seek alternate methods of extracting coal; instead they will say “If we don’t get this permit for mountaintop removal, then the operation will close down and you will have to try to find a job somewhere else ““ away from the mountains, away from your family.”

Yes, it is contradiction. But I hope you understand. It is not the miners’ fault. Most people like to stay close to home to work and raise a family. They like to live close to their parents and grandparents and go to the same church. They enjoy the mountain traditions, living their lives in a familiar and friendly atmosphere.

The first time I actually saw mountaintop removal, I traveled out of my county to the Kayford property of Larry Gibson, of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Jim Branscome had told me what to expect: “…moonscapes. The mountain is flattened and dirt and dust is swirled around.” Well, I was in the presence of Ken Hechler and Larry Gibson, and National Geographic was doing a photo shoot of the area. Larry took me to the top of his property in his pickup truck, to the family cemetery on this mountain. There were around 300 graves, most of them marked with white crosses. We walked through the graveyard carefully to avoid stepping into the crevices. When we reached the edge, we should have looked up but we looked down. What once was a majestic mountain was a dusty moonscape. I was stunned and hurt by what I saw.

After my visit to Kayford property, I brought up the topic of mountaintop removal a few times at work and social occasions, but the only thing I gained was a loss of friends and disgruntled remarks from relatives who made their living by tearing down the mountains.

mountaintop removal permits KY and WV

Map showing the high concentration of mountaintop removal and valley fill areas in Kentucky and West Virginia, drawn from permits in those two states. Mountaintop removal mining is also widespread in Tennessee and Virginia but permit information is harder to obtain, according to Appalachian Voices.
Source: Appalachian Voices

I didn’t stop there. I wrote to several state politicians, telling them I was doing a survey of who was for and against abolishing mountaintop removal. I received one reply. She was from a non-coal producing county and said that if reclamation were done properly and in a timely manner, she didn’t think it was that bad. No one else responded.

But I didn’t stop there. I emailed a professor at Columbia University after watching him and Leonardo DiCaprio on an Oprah Show talk about their commitment to stop global warming. The professor wrote back and said that they were not addressing mountaintop removal in their campaign. I thought coal and the mountains were part of climate control.

Mr. Future President, just when I was having my doubts about this your campaigns, as I was feeling low and questioning your genuine concern for the working-class people ““ coal miners and their families — you came through. I am feeling more optimistic. I can sleep better knowing you are taking a stand for the good of the people of Appalachia, to protect and preserve their unique lifestyle and culture. I trust you will explore ways of creating jobs through coal production that don’t tear down our mountains.

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