There is no doubt we are blessed to attend a university located in some of the most beautiful countryside in the world.
For many students, this is their first time living in a rural county nestled in the hills. While our campus’ beauty is undeniable, just a few miles away a much different scene can be found, a scene where men in business suits command an arsenal of weaponry with the sole purpose of mining the earth from beneath our very feet.
Our campus is positioned in a narrow region of ancient, round-topped mountains known as Appalachia. For centuries the men and women of this region have been scraping away a livelihood from a land that has become increasingly exhausted in search of a black, organic compound known as bituminous coal.
In the old days, deep shafts were sunk and the coal was dragged out with mules, and later small trucks. Now, we as Americans cannot get coal out of the ground fast enough and are willing to do anything to get to it, even resorting to the complete and permanent destruction of the land.
Today, more than a third of the coal produced in the United States comes straight out of Appalachia, employing more than 50,000 miners. It is what we use to heat our homes and run our electrical appliances. Most of us are not phased by how such occurrences happen, nor do we care, just as long as they do.
However, the image of the coal miner is rapidly changing from a man with a pick and shovel to a mechanized workforce of trucks and explosives. The truth of the matter is the miner is quickly being replaced, leaving its benefits few and its damages wide and varying.
The coal companies destroy, without regard, thousands of acres of forest, streams and mountains. They blast the tops off these mountains to get to the coal underneath and fill adjacent valleys with the rubble, burying waterways that are vital to the world’s second most diverse ecosystem.
Since the trees have been stripped from the land, there’s nothing to hold the water, causing the earth to become unstable and allowing rivers to flood surrounding areas with black sludge. In these floods there have been many deaths, casualties of an economic contest to make money.
This process does not help the coal miner either. In fact, thousands have been laid off in recent years because they are not needed when an explosive can do the job exponentially faster and cheaper.
I do not come from a coal mining family. I do not live in the shadow of a blasted mountain, nor is the water coming out of my faucet stinking with the pollutants of disturbed headwaters. I turn the lights on and off, just like anyone else, and I do not usually think about what it took to do it.
The little town of Crozet, Virginia, which I call home, bases its economy on farming rather than mining. Nevertheless, that does not change the fact that many people living in my state — and throughout the country — suffer each day and are in constant danger from a threat they had no part in creating.
I am not anti-coal; in fact, I am very much in favor of traditional coal mining. If the entire mining industry was taken away from Appalachia, the economic repercussions would be unfathomable.
I cannot, however, support a system where the corporate financier is making millions of dollars off a carefully executed system, while the countryside and its people are harmed on a daily basis.
This process is not only an environmental catastrophe, but also a crime against humanity. People — many being the very ones who mine the coal — are having their wells dried up, their properties flooded and their lives threatened.
Only when the nation’s demand for coal is limited and government restrictions are imposed on these companies will we see this new type of mining disappear.