Resisting Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia

The New York Times has a report today on mountaintop removal and the ways in which citizens in Appalachia are organizing to resist the practice.

Mountaintop removal is a form of coal mining that has became popular and cost-effective for coal companies in the last decade. Instead of drilling into the mountain to mine the coal, this method simply takes the “top” of the mountain to create a more open pit for mining. All of the waste is then dumped into adjacent valleys.

The environmental impacts of this practice are devastating. The loss of trees increases the likelihood for flooding and hyrdological systems are contaminated by the waste.

There was a backlash against the practice in the 1990s, led by such groups as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, resulted in modest regulations during the late part of the decade. However, under the Bush administration, the rules for depositing the waste have been significantly relaxed, leading to an increase in the employment of the removal technique.

Today’s Times article frames the resistance as a “new” phenomenon whereby residents are appealing to their “faith” as a justification for resisting the practice and are using churches as the insitutional foundation for organizing. The article has a bit of the typical East Coast condescending attitude, implying that “faith” is being used in the absence of “rationality” in guiding citizen criticism of the practice.

In reality, the role of religious institutions as important civic spaces for resisting environmental exploitation is long-standing. In fact, the environmental justice movement in the United States traces its origin to strong community organizing with prominent roles filled by religious leaders. In 1982, the resistance of the predominantly African American residents of Warren County, North Carolina to the siting of a hazardous waste landfill relied upon religious institutions and the 1987 groundbreaking study on “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” was sponsored by the United Church of Christ.

For more information on the grassroots origins of the environmental justice movement, Robert Bullard’s classic study, Dumping in Dixie, still retains its relevance.