The Dirt on Coal
Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness. Erik
Reece. xviii + 250 pp. Penguin Press, 2006. $24.95.
By him first
Men also, and by his suggestion
Ransacked the center, and with impious
Rifled the bowels of their mother Earth
treasures better hid.
—Milton, Paradise Lost
Lost Mountain still exists on my Rand-McNally map of
Kentucky, but it is now gone forever, a casualty of our national
obsession with cheap electricity. It is one of 456 mountains in the
Appalachians leveled to get at the upper seams of coal that underlie
one of the oldest and most diverse and beautiful ecosystems on
Earth. The form of mining is called "mountaintop removal,"
which means blasting away the peaks and dumping all that is not coal
into thevalleys. The devastation is mostly hidden from public view
and is never included in the glib talk about "clean coal."
So far, 1.5 million acres have been decimated, and the practice is
metastasizing across four states with nary a whisper of protest from
law-makers in Washington.
Erik Reece's Lost Mountain, a well-crafted
report on blood and ruin in the coal fields of Appalachia, harks
back to earlier accounts such as Harry Caudill's 1963 book Night
Comes to the Cumberlands. The difference is that of scale.
As bad as coal mining has always been, it is even worse now because
of the size of the equipment used and the ongoing failure of elected
officials to protect the land and people of the Appalachians.
President Bush and Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, among others,
have been the recipients of hundreds of thousands of dollars of
campaign contributions from the coal industry. And the head of the
Mine Safety and Health Administration reports to McConnell's wife,
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. The conflicts of interest are apparent,
but the power of the coal industry has long manifested itself in
this region, which has been sacrificed to ensure a supply of cheap
energy for other parts of the country.
Reece is a gifted writer, and the detail and
specificity he provides make the story both poignant and valuable.
The Appalachians, he explains, have been the seedbed for the
continent after successive ice ages. They are among the oldest
mountains in the world and represent one of the most diverse
ecologies found anywhere on Earth. But this is not just a tale of
environmental ruination. The blasting, coal washing and valley
filling create deep human suffering, raising issues of decency,
fairness and justice. Coal companies routinely dump toxic chemicals
that later show up in what passes for drinking water. Reece remarks
of one such instance that
the most sinister part of this whole sad story is that it
was all done intentionally. A multinational corporation hid in a
hollow of one of the poorest counties of one of the poorest states,
and knowingly dumped hundreds of deadly chemicals right on the
Poisoned water is only one of a number of potentially
deadly side effects of coal mining. Coal dust can cause black lung
and silicosis; overloaded coal trucks careen down perilous mountain
roads; boulders dislodged by blasting endanger nearby houses;
deforestation leads to flooding; and influxes of toxic slurry
threaten to burst dams on hundreds of ponds. Hopelessness, too,
probably takes its toll, but never appears on a death certificate.
"There's blood," Reece writes, "everywhere you look."
Are these horrors necessary? The author says no. Were
we forced to pay the true costs of electricity, we might "begin
to think about smaller homes, better insulation, fluorescent
lighting, strategically placed shade trees, and solar hot-water
heaters. The technology is there; we simply lack the will."
Coal from the removal of mountains in Appalachia supplies about 4
percent of our total national use, and coal burning represents half
or more of our national emissions of CO2, contributing to
Aside from state and federal action to promote
efficiency and renewable sources of energy, what can be done? Reece
believes that it is possible to create "an industry around real
reclamation in the mountains." The Appalachian Regional
Reforestation Initiative has, according to Reece, "developed a
successfully tested plan to bring forests back to strip mines."
The key, apparently, is to replant without first compacting the
soils and mining debris. In Kentucky, 1,500 acres have been
"truly reclaimed" using methods pioneered by the ARRI.
Although this may be a promising way to mitigate some of the
problems caused by mountaintop removal, one hopes that it will not
be used to justify practices that ought to be terminated altogether.
Looking down on the shattered remnants of Lost
Mountain, Reece reflects that "I am surrounded by the work of
conquerors, not members of any land community. No one who felt a
responsibility to other citizens within a community would destroy
its water, homes, wildlife, and woodlands." And, one might add,
no decent society would deprive its citizens and its children of
life, liberty and property so wantonly and coldly. Reece concludes
Material gain, speed, and convenience are the most dominant
forces within this country, and they have done much to crush the
spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic elements of our nature. If we
understood the natural world as a spiritual presence, we would also
see that all living things are kin to us.
Lost Mountain is a story well told, both eloquent and
moving. It is a requiem for "a landscape worthy of comparison
to an earthly paradise." But it is also a story written in the
hope that we might one day regain control of what Henry Adams once
described as "the law of acceleration," by which he meant
the exponential and unbridled advance of human civilization. Doing
so will require that we place the destruction of Appalachia on a
wider topography of industrial ruin that includes climate
destabilization, the possibility of more Katrina-scale storms, heat
waves and droughts, and human suffering that we have neither words
to describe nor, yet, the wit and policies to alleviate.
In the end, Lost Mountain is a story of political
failure—of the corruption of democratic politics by coal
companies, timber barons, and land owners who bled the region of its
resources, youth and pride. But no good book is purely a lament, and
this one certainly is not. Instead it looks forward to a better era
when at last we will have built a culture to match the peaks of
Appalachia. And we have neither time nor mountains to waste.