gamut (2006-31)

"Bring tissues and a camera,” an environmentalist friend advised when I mentioned I was tagging along on United Mountain Defense’s next coalmine flyover. “You can’t really understand it until you see it. It’ll break your heart.”

Almost from the moment we take off from the Campbell County airport, I believe her.

The pilot of our four-man plane is John Barker, a volunteer from the non-profit conservation organization SouthWings. From its headquarters in Asheville, SouthWings works to provide environmental and community groups in 11 states with skilled pilots for various ecological monitoring projects. One of the groups it aids is United Mountain Defense (UMD), which performs quarterly flyovers of coalmines in upper East Tennessee and Kentucky.  

“It’s critical to see the area from above to keep track of cumulative impacts,” explains Poloma Galindo, a UMD activist who’s in the backseat during today’s flight. Below us is the city of Lafollette, recognizable as a tidy network of miniature homes with square lawns and turquoise swimming pools. As the airport fades into the distance, the homes get farther apart, separated now by patchwork fields in hues of green, some dotted with livestock. I-75 is a thin ribbon of gray, snaking through the mountains of Campbell and Claiborne County. 

The coalmines, once they appear, aren’t hard to pick out, despite the thick summer haze. They look like interconnected craters, massive bald spots zigzagging along the mountain ridges, laced together by pale dirt roads. Some of the older ones take the shape of wedding cakes, with cliff-edged tiers and layers iced with scrubby vegetation; others look like misshapen blobs, unnatural and asymmetrical, as though someone took them apart and carelessly shoveled them back together—which is the approximate gist of contour mining and cross-ridge mining respectively, explains Galindo. Their expanses are fringed by clear-cut areas, which indicate that they’ll be mined soon.

But it’s the sheer scope of it, the way the mines keep extending on and on for miles, that’s most striking. That’s what doesn’t come across in pictures or words alone.

Galindo grabs my hand. “See all that?” she asks in a startled tone that suggests that, even after all these flyovers, the mines’ shock factor has yet to fade. “They just keep expanding and expanding. They’re taking out whole mountain ranges. It should be called mountain-range mining.” 

Local photographer Caleb Wilson is craning a small video camera out the front window (a link to his footage is available online at the Metro Pulse website). In one of the most arresting shots he gets today, he zooms in on the cloudy waters of a sludge pond, containing a slurry of toxins released in the blasting—arsenic, cyanide, chromium, zinc and sulfur. Not the kind of pond you’d want to swim in.

“It all gets back to the groundwater. Imagine if that dam broke,” Galindo says. “How can you look at that and say this is not destroying our watersheds?”

As the plane turns away from the mines and heads back toward the airport, I breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, the day has just begun.

An hour or so later, we’re standing in the middle of the scene we just beheld from above. It’s a mine in the Eagan area, just below Kentucky, but it might as well be the face of the moon. Piles of chalky, iridescent coal sit baking beneath the scorching July sun, and the only sound is the occasional clatter of rubble tumbling down the freshly blasted cliffs.

“Keep your voices down,” Galindo whispers. Loud sounds, she says, could set off an avalanche; even the slightest breeze shakes boulders loose and sends them crashing toward the mine floor. The mine we’re standing on must only be a few days old, and the mountain, with its side blasted off, is still settling. Newer mines, says Galindo, are worse. “You hear the mountain groaning, like a glacier,” she says. “You can feel it. The mountain is in shock.”

Massive piles of rubble and organic matter, or overburden, are pushed to the side of the mine. You can tell from the dirt-clotted branches hanging out that whole trees are buried in there, too. At the top of the cliff, about six stories up, a foot or so of topsoil sits above the bedrock. Other trees and shrubs are still rooted there, forming a shadowy silhouette against the bright blue sky. Galindo points at it. “That’s the bed of life for this entire ecosystem, and it’s turned into rubble. All those seedbeds are buried. All that life is crushed.”

Coal exists in seams, wedged between layers of rock. To figure out where those seams are, drills are run straight down into the earth, and when they rattle it’s a sign that they’ve hit coal. Explosives are used to fracture the mountain, at which point dozers, loaders and trucks are used to remove everything above the coal. Most of mountains have multiple coal seams, so the mines get deeper and deeper until all possible reserves have been harvested. Then the rubble is used to fill the pit that’s left and piled back together in the shape of the original mountain. Hydra-seed, or invasive grasses that will grow on pretty much anything, are planted on top.

Galindo points out a hillside covered in what looks like sea oats and explains that just one month ago when she visited, the hillside was a deep open pit. “It changes so fast,” she says. “You can come out here once a month, and it’s always radically different.”

The entrances to most of the bigger mines are blocked off, either by locked gates or piles of rock. At one mine we try to enter, a watchman sitting inside an old school bus shoos us away. Although it’s a Sunday, and there’s no mining going on, we’re probably not supposed to be here. If anyone asks, Galindo says, we’re going to visit the community cemetery, which actually exists somewhere amongst these mines.

It’s eerie, though, to imagine the atmosphere of this place on a day when mining is progress. Around every bend in the road, there are signs explaining the air-horn signals used to warn of a blast. On a working day, monstrous bulldozers, with tires twice as tall as our car, growl back and forth between sites in great clouds of dust. We roll past the motionless machines on our way out of the mine, picking up speed when we reach the entry office. It’s patrolled 24 hours a day.

Even though we’re sweating through our clothes, as the temperature is now hovering in the upper 90s, we still have one stop to make before heading back to Knoxville—actually, two stops.

Galindo suggests we take a break at a shady swimming hole she discovered during a recent visit. It’s spring-fed and cool, and it offers another reminder of what is at risk from the mining. Headwaters, high in the mountains, are oftentimes in the path of destruction, and groundwater tables may be fractured in the process of blasting. Mining results in a discharge of pollutants into the water system, ranging from heavy metals and carcinogens to sediment. Oftentimes, streams are literally buried, and while coal companies are now required to reroute damaged streams, there’s no way of exactly replicating nature.

At this swimming hole, a local mother and her son are already there, enjoying a late afternoon dip. The son busies himself with diving off a large boulder, while the mother chats with Galindo about the weather and the heat and the community she lives in, White Oak. Galindo asks friendly questions and listens patiently to the talkative woman, who has a lot to say. It’s a practice Galindo’s become quite adept at through UMD’s listening project, in which UMD members visit the homes of residents living in mining communities and interview them about how mining may or may not affect their way of life.

“Whatever they say, you’re learning,” Galindo explains. “With every new story, you’re getting a different perspective.”

Some residents they speak with are defensive of the practice, especially if that’s how they or someone in their family or neighborhood makes a living. Others have strong opinions otherwise.

Carol Judy, whose home we stop by next, is among the latter. When we arrive, she fetches a pitcher of sun tea from where it’s steeping on a stump in the yard and offers us a basket of blackberries and huckleberries. Judy describes herself as self-sufficient—she has no electricity, no running water, grows her own food, and makes a living gathering goldenseal from the woods and selling it for $30 a pound at the Jellico drugstore.

“Some folks think that the simple life is simple, but no, it’s really complex,” she explains. “To live rural, you’ve got to have access to what sustains you. In this case, that’s the mountain.”

Even Judy’s home bears evidence of the impact coal mining has had on the area. It rests atop an old deep mine, which was the original, but much more labor-intensive, method of mining, and parts of the yard are sinking. She doesn’t understand how coal corporations can just come into her community, strip it of its resources, and leave it with half-shod reparations.

Her speech is laced with concepts like “sustainability,” “global economy,” and “indoctrination.” She says people aren’t asking enough questions, and they’re turning their backs on issues that they think don’t involve them. “Why does success have to look like enough money to buy anything we want to?” she asks.

Today, the woods surrounding Judy’s home are mostly quiet, save the occasional birdsong or cicada or buzz of a passing bumblebee. Other days, the sound of dynamite ripping open a nearby mountainside frequently interrupt the peace.

It’s easy to forget about people like Judy, who build their homes off mountain backroads that most of us will never travel. It’s easy to forget about the mountains that we can’t see from the interstate, the ones that will never make it onto postcards because, frankly, they’re not much to look at anymore.

Thankfully, organizations like UMD and SouthWings are making it a point to remember.