Refounding Appalachia: The scars of heritage and history

Aug 12 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

As I've mentioned before, I went to college in a small Appalachian town. It was crowded through the long winter and barren through the summer, always cool and damp, quiet for those of us who choose to live and work there while the rest of the student population radiated back to their homes in the city. Our apartment was on the outskirts of the town, in the middle of a large brick building sitting on the rim of the valley, one of five in the complex. They were old, built perhaps in the 1940's, collectively named after a famous Civil War general, Braddock, as is much in the area. There was no central air, and the windows would not accommodate a smaller AC unit, but it didn't matter; the summers were mild enough to go without, even on the hottest days.

Winter was anything but mild. In the very bottom of our building was an old iron furnace, yards from the two washers and driers stuffed in a nook called the Laundry Room stained black around their bottom frames. In early October, the building would start to warm, insulating our apartment with the heat from our surrounding neighbors - up, down and across the hall. Throughout the winter, we rarely had to turn our system on at all.

Every couple of weeks or a coal truck would pull up on the lawn in front of our building. The driver would yank the trap door to the coal chute and dump the fuel down slowly, sparkling shards amid a great cloud of black dust, which would eventually settle on the walk up to the front door. I'd run into one of the maintenance guys every so often in the basement shoveling the furnace full. Everything around us - the washing machines, furniture, brick, matte paint, carpets, hands - was dusted or smeared with coal dust. You'd brush your leg against the wrong wall in the staircase down to the basement and curse the ensuing stain, brushing it off the best you could.

Coal was a way of life for us, a constant, a mainstay. There was a coal mine further up the mountain, across from the entrance to our complex and the neighborhood behind us. On the way to class I'd sit at the stop sign waiting for the line of coal trucks to lumber up or down the rutted incline. No matter where you were in the town you could hear them gearing down, loud as jet engines, as they breached the top, heading down. Like the rest of the area, little white houses in coal country are never exactly white - they're mottled gray. Against a backdrop of a skeletal winter forest and persistent gray skies, it's no wonder students dubbed January through March in the area "The Suicide Months." For me, it's part and parcel of middle Appalachia's charm, indicative of a deep history. But that doesn't excuse the fact that coal has become more of a burden than a boon.

I started blogging in that little town, and thought often about how the region could change for the future and still retain its identity, moving away from coal and adopting a less invasive approach to resource management, but never as comprehensively as this.

The authors want to take the best trait of the region - its rich biodiversity - and build a new economy from a refurbished ecology. This is the point where I usually turn skeptical, but there are some good ideas in the paper that I think deserve attention, especially since the only factor they draw a line through is mountaintop removal, which I believe is perfectly reasonable considering the effects. Getting rid of coal mining in general  is not. It's a goal for a distant future, but not very realistic.

The paper constructs an "ecological design" specific to the region in three orders. The first is focused on reestablishing the soil. Mining overturns, compacts and depletes soil, which results in a conversion of forest to scrublands seeded with invasive grasses. Based on research performed by the authors, the invasives could be replaced by particular native grasses that grow well in nutrient poor soils. The grasses would form a foundation for succession, provide material for biofuels and feed and serve as a basal carbon capture system. Coal slurry, which is responsible for a number of horrific disasters, would have to be remediated on a large scale to ensure these soils are kept clean and functioning properly (filtering, capture, etc.). All of this would be done to build up a timber, agroforestry, bioenergy and eco agro industry, from which the authors speculate other industry could spring: biofuels, plastics, polymers, adhesives, building materials and wind and solar technologies. The 16 year plan is represented in the graphic below.

I've boiled the plan down quite a bit, so it's worth it to read through, but the main idea here is through interconnected, built-from-scratch systems you could create sustainable industry where there is severe economic and ecological degradation.

Sounds too easy, I know. Toward the end of the paper the authors highlight the fact that wind power is moving in to these areas and building on old strip mines or attempting to buy out coal lands to prevent mountaintop mining, building a series of giant windmills instead. This is a huge issue right now, two energy industries vying for land. In general, the people in these areas don't like the windmills and consider them as not only eyesores on the landscape, but destructive to the forests and migrating birds and bats. There's arguments on both sides, for and against, but I've been up close, seen a newly constructed tower and I wonder just how much of an effect this industry will have if it gains a significant foothold. It's not as invasive as coal mining on the land itself, but maintenance roads have to be constructed between each windmill on the farm, and they are truly enormous machines that are killing migratory fliers. I share the concerns of the people opposing the wind industry.

So even when there is supposed to be hope in the form of a new energy legacy, there is disappointment. All across the Appalachian landscape there are scars of energy production. Along the ridge tops sit rows of giant windmills, forest hollowed out around their base. The planted tree lines along the highways cannot hide the deep gray cuts of stripped mountainsides. Even when you're deep in the forest, miles from any settlement, any other human being, you stumble across a spoiled waterway, a tiny winding stream that jostles clinging coal precipitants.

The first time you visualize the extent of the damage in such a seemingly untouched area is a shock, but the people who have lived there are resigned, used to it, but no less aware. It's a bitter reminder of selective industry, the great sieve that depletes and deprives, leaving few benefactors but many disenfranchised.

While I am away, I will always miss the middle mountains. I spent my summers as a kid in those forests and returned to them as a young adult. I've learned and grown in them. They gave me a sharp contrast to city life, a window into how people live in this country, what America used to be, what it's become. The system has been broken for decades. It's time for a big step.

Todd, J. Doshi, S. McInnis, A. 2010. Beyond Coal: A Resilient New Economy for Appalachia. Solutions. Vol 1, No. 4. pp. - -

4 responses so far

  • zuska says:

    This is such an incredible blend of memoir and science writing. I remember when I was little, watching the coal truck arrive to load our coal bin for the winter. And the first snow - so pretty! - quickly followed by the spotty black dots in the snow from everyone's chimney. Coal was everything in the town I grew up in. Coal built the town I grew up in.

    I have shared this post with a few friends. Thanks so much for writing it.

    • jeremy says:

      Exactly, Z. It's so easy to utterly demonize coal, but as you said, these areas are built on it, it's a part of the collective history, the memories of the families that have lived there for generations.

      Thank you for the kind words.

  • zuska says:

    Well, when I say "coal built the town I grew up in" I do mean that - the coal company built it, and the coal miner families were in thrall to the company and the company store. When I travel back to that area now I see the land being destroyed in many ways by coal mining practices that are more harsh and environmentally destructive than the regular deep shaft mining my grandfathers and fathers were employed in. It is utterly depressing to drive down a country road, come around a bend expecting to see the same vista you've known since childhood, and find instead that the mountainside has literally just been torn away and replaced with machines and an open pit of contaminated poisonous sludgy water. When I expressed grief about this to my mother, however, her response was "well, that's somebody has a job." My feeling is that shouldn't be the only devil's choice offered to those who want to be employed and feed their children - move away from the place you grew up in and love, or stay here and participate in its destruction.

    • jeremy says:

      I can't count how many times I heard that it's not that young people didn't want to stay, but they couldn't if they wanted to do something with their lives. Some of them do, of course, and take the jobs they can, but the majority have to move away. In fact, I just talked to a friend who will be moving from the area to a more central metropolitan area to find work.

      If I could have, I would have stayed and worked in the area. If more people stayed, perhaps more pressure could be put on the politicians and coal companies to actually make changes and stop taking advantage.