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Column: Richard Whiteford

I CAME to vacation in the beautiful mountains of West Virginia. Because of the ugly and environmentally devastating mountaintop removal mining by the coal companies, I won't return.

Without even considering mountaintop removal's permanent environmental destruction - how can you, the citizens of West Virginia, allow a few people, who most likely won't retire there, to rape and defile your state, and when all the coal's gone, leave you holding the bag?

Environmentally, you're getting at least a sixfold whammy: a loss of biodiversity, a loss of water quality and quantity, an alteration of precipitation patterns, a loss of productive top soil, and a major contribution to global warming caused by the change in typography, the destruction of the biomass, and the burning of the extracted coal; not to mention the loss of your tourist industry by the uglification of the hallmark of your state. Are coal revenues - one industry - worth this?

Ecological destruction by humans is causing the worst mass extinction ever experienced on Earth. Far worse, even, than when the dinosaurs went extinct. Habitat destruction and fragmentation is also burning the biological candle from the other end by impeding the evolutionary processes. Noted scientists give us about 30 years to stop destroying, and in many cases, to restore ecosystems, or face ecological catastrophes.

Studies of past periods of mass ecosystem loss, comparable to mountaintop removal, like glaciers and meteor strikes, show that it takes up to 10 million years of nondisturbance for an ecosystem to recover. That's 40 times longer than humans have existed!

The dumping of mountain fill in the hollows and streams causes siltation which kills most stream life. It diverts, or stops, natural water distribution, causes floods, and intensifies pollution. The leveled land's filtration rate is drastically altered from its natural state, causing erosion and flooding.

The biotic life in the soil such as bacteria, microorganisms, fungi, bugs and worms create the rich topsoil that supports life. All of that is destroyed in mountaintop removal, which is why these sites are so unsuccessful in rebounding with new growth. It will take eons for the soil community to recover to its natural state.

Mountaintop removal alters precipitation in ways that not only will effect West Virginia, but the East Coast as well. In the summer, the hot air from the Great Plains hits the tree-covered mountains and rises, colliding with the colder air above, creating rain. The trees also play an important role. They transpire about two-thirds of the rain back into the atmosphere, generating more rain, and absorb most of the other third, preventing flooding.

Trees also absorb sunlight, reducing the greenhouse effect, whereas flat grasslands reflect more sunlight (21 percent) back into the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect. With the loss of enough mountains and trees, the hot winds will not condense until they collide with the Atlantic Ocean's air currents, causing a drought on the Eastern seaboard.

As for global warming, not only will the burning of the extracted coal be a major contribution, but over one-fourth of the increase in greenhouse gases comes from deforestation and land-clearing activities, which release high levels of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon into the atmosphere. To compound the problem, the use of nitrogen fertilizers to promote new growth in the leveled areas contributes even more nitrous oxide to the atmosphere.

Global warming is a serious problem, and coal is one of its biggest contributors. The coal industry, and some other industries, spent $13 million on advertising campaigns trying to debunk global warming. Yet, over 2,500 leading scientists say we must cut carbon dioxide levels now. One of the framers of the Kyoto treaty, Dr. Kilaparti Ramakrishna, says that if global emissions are too high 12 years from now, there will be little chance to avoid climatic catastrophe.

The argument that West Virginia needs more level areas may have some validity, but, if so, it should be limited and "planned" leveling adjacent to cities and done in environmentally sensitive ways.

Mountaintop removal's assault on the environment is not unlike what genocide was to humanity during the Holocaust of World War II. It is also a blasphemy to God's creation. It should be stopped now!


Whiteford is an environmental writer from Pennsylvania who does free-lance writing for many newspapers and journals throughout North America. He is a member of the Society of Conservation Biologists.



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