According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2020 U.S. coal production fell to its lowest level since 1965. West Virginia produces the second most coal in the U.S. after Wyoming, much of it from a mining method called mountaintop removal.
Mountaintop removal coal mining uses dynamite to blast the tops off mountains to get at the thin coal seams wedged between tons of rock. The process then dumps the resulting debris into streams, often burying them in rock, trees and soil. This mining method creates severe ecological damage as well as public health impacts where local residents breath coal dust-laden air and other toxic emissions. Although now used less often, mountaintop removal mining is still employed in West Virginia.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Allen Johnson, cofounder and coordinator of the group Christians for the Mountains, which is working to stop this incredibly destructive mining practice and take positive steps to improve the quality of life for people living in the Appalachian region.
[Web editor’s note: The audio version of this interview has been edited to fit broadcast time constraints.]
ALEX JOHNSON: It has dropped significantly, I assume, because there’s not as much thermal coal, or steam coal, for power generation nationwide. That’s not true in West Virginia; 90 percent of electric generation is fossil fuel, coal really, and that’s because of political maneuverings. But, also, coal is used for metallurgical purposes to make steel and some of the highest quality coking coal to make the steel, is in mountaintop removal seams.
So, it is going on; it has moved on as far as the major environmental communities, they’ve gone on to other things like fracking and gas and pipelines and things like that, so it’s under-reported again.
MELINDA TUHUS: Larry Gibson was one of the leaders of the fight to stop mountaintop removal. He had a place on top of Kayford Mountain, where groups of students and others, like me, drove up an almost impossibly steep, narrow and rutted dirt road to get there. And he would educate us about the damage it does and the fight to stop it. Sadly, he died in 2012, but please talk about a new campaign you’re involved in regarding his home.
ALEX JOHNSON: Kayford Mountain, where Larry Gibson was, that is a place that is starting to deteriorate. We had a gathering last July and out of that we’re going to try to save it. You know, the buildings have been vandalized and even the pavilion, the roof was stolen. But we have a young couple that’s going to move up there, probably in the next month or so.
We’re going to be working on an off-grid system for them to live there. They’re very motivated. We’re going to try to establish Larry’s House; Larry Gibson’s house will be eventually and education learning center. If we can acquire some adjacent land, we would try to start doing some real restoration, maybe a generation-long project. So, we have to not be just against stuff. We have to somehow find ways to rebuild Appalachia, which really needs to be rebuilt. Building projects in Boone County, which is one of the most beleaguered counties. So, we’re doing some positive rebuilding to bring hope again into some of these struggling areas of Appalachia. We have to do both.
There are legislation efforts to try to not only stop mountaintop removal, but to try to find alternative employment. We know that green energy alone would bring in a lot of employment if we could get state officials to get behind it instead of still trying to ride the coal horse.
MELINDA TUHUS: You mean state legislation?
ALEX JOHNSON: Here’s a good example. The Public Service Commission, there’s three people on it. They deal with the power plants, electric rates and so forth. They also deal with the telephone and all that. There’s three of them, appointed by the governor. The governor, Jim Justice, is a coal baron, let’s start with that. He’s a major one, with a reputation as a very polluting coal baron, able to chisel down the fines to a dime on the dollar or something, as well as safety violations. So you got that. He appoints three people. One of them is a former coal lobbyist. Bill Raney is the former head of the West Virginia Coal Association and the third one is kind of quiet. What they’re doing is keeping these old, aging power plants which are ready to retire and they’re asking them to put huge amounts of money – and the ratepayers pay for it – to rehab them and keep them going so they can keep burning coal. So the electric rates of West Virginians, which 20 years ago were among the lowest in the nation, are now really above the national average. Coal is not as cost-effective as gas and gas is not as cost-effective as new solar. But they just want to keep pimping for coal.
MELINDA TUHUS: And if people’s rates are going up, you’d think they might be a little upset about that. Do you think the general population understands why their rates are going up and they could be better if they were using renewables?
ALEX JOHNSON: I don’t think they understand enough. Some of the media will report it and a lot of the media won’t. And the other thing is, West Virginia has a high rate of home ownership, but a lot of the homes are not well insulated. They’re small and poor – a step or two above a shack, you know. So, energy efficiency and insulating and more efficient heating systems would help a lot and would reduce the need for electricity. So, there’s a number of issues that could help. A lot of people are paying $200 or more a month. And it’s hard for low-income people. Or more, if they heat with electricity, it’s a lot higher. Again, heating with electricity is considered to be a good thing if the electricity is being sourced through renewables.
For more information, visit Christians for the Mountains at christiansforthemountains.org.
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