Leave the Appalachians Alone

With Thanksgiving break looming on the horizon, I cannot suppress constant thoughts about seeing my family, eating good food, and getting a much needed break from schoolwork. But also on my mind is our upcoming day trip to Shenandoah National Park! Although the winter chill is setting in and thus hiking season will soon be over, my family decided that with everyone home over break we should all hike Old Rag together. And who doesn’t love a good hike?! Particularly along the Blue Ridge, where the lush woodlands and rolling hills create picturesque views like this:

Especially in the fall, the Blue Ridge Parkway becomes a living watercolor painting, brimming with oranges, golds, and scarlets as far as the eye can see. Who would even think of disrupting something with so much aesthetic value? Unfortunately, destruction of mountaintops across the Appalachian Mountain Range has been an ongoing problem sine the mid-1900s. And despite a constant battle from environmental activists, this abomination has no indication of being stopped anytime soon.
The culprits are coal mining companies, who strip the majestic landscape for acquisition of fossil fuels in a detestable process known as mountaintop removal mining. Basically, the coal miners deforest the mountain and remove all organic material, topsoil, and bedrock to the depth of the coal seam. Not only does this cause deliberate damage to the forest ecosystem, but the local waterways are also crippled since all the waste material removed from the mountain (called the overburden) gets dumped into adjacent forest streams.
traditional mountain stream (left) compared to a stream diverted and buried in mountain debris (right), courtesy of Appalachian Voices
Traditional mountain stream (left) compared to a stream diverted and buried in mountain debris (right), courtesy of Appalachian Voices
Whether these companies know it or not, they are destroying one of the oldest temperate forest ecosystems in the world, causing one of the most biodiverse areas to lose some of its species, which in some cases are completely unique to the region.
What’s more, the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act only requires mining companies to restore the removal sites with grass, which means that any hope of a secondary forest succession would take thousands of years to develop.
There are also consequences for the people living nearby due to constant explosions that can damage homes and wells, flooding from waste-filled streams, and of course, respiratory illness from the coal dust and toxic chemicals released during this fossil fuel extraction.
Supporters of mountaintop mining point to our increasing energy demand, but since extraction of coal is 1) only 30-40% efficient when burned and 2) has so many detrimental effects to forest ecosystems, water ecosystems, hundreds of species of plants and animals, and humans themselves, I cannot fathom how the argument can run in their favor. And that’s without even adding renewable energy sources into the equation!
According to one report, Google Earth shows more than 460 mountains in the Appalachian region destroyed to date. Looking at just one of those is depressing.
Hopefully this post was more informative than it was rant, but nevertheless I will definitely be appreciating the beauty around me when I’m hiking with my family this weekend, and hoping that we can win the fight against mountaintop removal sometime very very soon.

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