Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Landscapes for Reclamation, Eastern Kentucky

In February of this year I went on a "Mountain Witness Tour" as part of the 2011 Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference at the University of Kentucky.  These tours are run by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and they are meant to help "people who don’t live in the coalfields understand the impact of coal mining on people, their homes, and their communities" (from the KFTC site).  More from KFTC:
KFTC organizes tours periodically to educate members and supporters.  Tours have been to Island Creek in Pike County, Red Bird in Clay County, Cloverlick in Harlan County, Ary in Perry County, and Sassafras in Knott County.  Participants have learned about the hazards of coal truck traffic, the total devastation caused by mountaintop removal, the damage caused by blasting, and the results of poor reclamation practices.
Author Silas House wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times earlier this year called "My polluted Kentucky Home."  Here's a selection:
Since it was first used in 1970, mountaintop removal has destroyed some 500 mountains and poisoned at least 1,200 miles of rivers and streams across the Appalachian coal-mining region. Yet Governor Beshear is so committed to the practice that he recently allied with the Kentucky Coal Association in a suit against the Environmental Protection Agency to block more stringent regulations of it. In court his administration’s lawyers referred to public opposition as simply “an unwarranted burden."

The news media and the rest of the country typically think of mountaintop removal as an environmental problem. But it’s a human crisis as well, scraping away not just coal but also the freedoms of Appalachian residents, people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above.
Here in the US, we consume resources like there is no tomorrow--literally.  One of the problems is that the effects of our choices and behaviors aren't always all that, well, visible.  At least for some people.  Mountaintop removal is certainly a process that takes place well outside of the public eye--and this is the reason why KFTC does their tours.  The MTR issue is extremely contentious, and the stakes are high on all sides.  But one way to address the problem--at least for starters--is to get a better understanding of some of the direct impacts, whether environmental, economic, or political.  I took my camera along with me on the Mountain Witness Tour.  I have included a few of the images I took that day.  I won't even pretend that these capture the entire story--not even close.  But they do tell part of the story, and that's a start.

One of the first places we stopped was a location where active mining was in process.  This site is located right alongside the small road that weaves through the area.  In the distance we could hear the drone of engines.

This image is was taken with a longer lens from around the same location as the previous.  What was striking to me was how much earth was being moved around.  The technological force is pretty staggering when you think about it.  And these processes are happening day in and day out, whether or not people pay attention.

Detail of one of one of the cuts into the wall of the mountain itself.

This was from another spot that we visited later in the day.  This is what's known as "reclaimed land," which means that the mining process is complete and now the soil and ecology are in the process of regeneration.  The actual success of the regeneration is up for debate, depending on who you ask.

Same place as the image above.  A small plant flagged in part of the reclamation process.

Another overview of the reclaimed landscape.  Notice the little peak in the distance with a few trees left.

Detail of the "reclaimed" soil.

Another overview of the reclaimed landscape.  This was at the end of the day, just as we were all heading back from the tour.  I turned around and caught this image, which is a pretty bleak and striking landscape all at once.

Photographs and text by Ryan Anderson

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