Not So ‘Wild and Wonderful West Virginia’

ImageWest Virginia is known as the “mountain state”. This nickname was given at a time when vast peaks and valleys covered the landscape of Appalachia, and the animal species were abundant and diverse. The growing industries of coal and natural gas have threatened the integrity of the species and ecosystems in the region. Much of the coal in West Virginia is found underneath the mountains that have defined this states uniqueness and beauty. In order for this coal to be accessed, the mountain must be leveled. Mountaintop removal mines have dramatically changed the surrounding environment, and some of the effected species are not being heard. 

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In Rock Creek, West Virginia a black bear walked up to a creek and crouched down next to it with it’s paw dangling into the orange tinged murky water. Two fish, a brown and a rainbow trout, swam up to the side of the stream and poked their heads out, just enough for it to be apparent that they were missing one or two of their eyes. The bear pushed air through its nose making a sound that indicated to the fish that he was not there as a predator, but as a friend.

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“I’m so tired” said the black bear “I’ve been searching for a spot to rest in the shade for hours but I can’t find the forest!” “I think the miners keep pushing the forest line westward to expose the base of the mountain, so you might want to look in that direction” replied the rainbow trout. “What are they doing to the mountain?” asked the black bear “Their mining for coal, which we have started calling ‘mountaintopremoval’.

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First they clear the forest that covers the mountainside, and remove layers of rock and dirt to expose the upper coal seams3. Then they use explosives to blast off the tops of the mountain, exposing the lower coal seams3. Finally they take all of the removed mountain and fill in the closest valleys3” The black bear lifted its head off of the dried dirt floor, tilted it sadly to the side, and then asked “why would they kill all of those trees to take coal out of the ground?” “I think the coal is more important to them than the trees are” said the Rainbow Trout.Image

The brown trout went under water for a few seconds, and when it came back up it had an orange film covering most of its gills. “Does the mountain top removal have anything to do with why your home is a new color?” asked the Black Bear “Yes!” replied the Brown Trout with a muffled tone to it’s words. “The orange color comes from contaminated mining run-off water. Over 1,200 miles of streams in Appalachia have either been covered by extracted mountainside or polluted with waste water1. Our home is one of those streams. There’s very little left for us to eat and nowhere else for us to go.” “I don’t know where else to go either!” said the Black Bear. “My three cubs were buried into our den2, and I wasn’t able to get them out! Every piece of forest that is demolished takes away shelter and food, and I am the only bear left in my pack!”. “Have you thought about going into the residential neighborhoods to find food?” asked the Rainbow Trout. “I have gone already” replied the Black Bear. “I have ripped open their trashcans and eaten whatever I could, but most of it makes me sick, and the very act of going into their neighborhoods threatens my life. I think my best bet is to find the remaining forest”. The bear then slowly planted its paws on the stream bank, pushed its thick tired body off the forest floor, and with it’s head hanging heavily, sauntered off towards the western edge of the demolished mountain.

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In areas where mining companies have changed the landscape to remove coal, they are required to repair the damage they caused by replanting the vegetation they destroyed. However, the destruction caused extends far beyond the loss of trees. Once an ecosystem is harmed the dynamic within it has changed forever4. As soon as toxic chemicals are introduced to the water supply, it will spread through the area, contaminating anything it touches and anyone that drinks it. There had been some attention bought to the people harmed  in communities surrounding mountaintop removal sites, but very little attention or importance placed on the animals in the area.

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Just south of Rock Creek, a massive 12-point elk was grazing in a bright green pasture near a small pond. The water was clear with many varieties of fish swimming below the thick surface of water lilies. The elk stood near to the edge of the pond and as it bent it’s decorated head towards the ground, a red cardinal landed on its antlers.

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“How was your journey?” asked the Elk. “Not at all what I would have liked it to be” replied the cardinal. “The coal miners have filled most of the valleys with rocks and dirt, which has forced the water out of the streams flooding most of the forest between us and the mountain.” “If the forest is flooding why aren’t more animals moving towards our pasture?” asked the Elk. “Some are”, replied the Cardinal, “but many have died.”

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The Elk slowly lifted its head, taking care to not disturb the cardinal, and started walking towards the rim of the pasture. When he reached the spot where the pasture met the forest he felt afraid of how quiet it was. “How much of our home do you think the miners will destroy before they stop?”asked the Cardinal. “I don’t think they know we’re here”, replied the Elk. “Their waste has been poising our streams, destroying our forests, wiping out most of our food supply, and killing some species to the point of extinction. Nothing is more valuable than life, and if they knew this was happening they would stop mountaintop removal, they would have to!” “How do we let them know we’re here?” shouted the Cardinal “I’m too small to get their attention, and you’re a walking hunting target!” “We wait” replied the Elk, calmly. “We continue to live on the land until it washes away, and we hope, that someone with a loud voice sees us, and shouts for them to stop, before it’s to late.”

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There is an immediate need for attention given to the harm done to the ecosystem in coal mining areas. The species that are affected are countless, and unlike humans they do not have the ability to communicate the injustice they experience. It is our job to give voices to the voiceless, and protect those that are harmed by our manipulation of the environment5.. Image

 Sources

  1. Appalachian Voices. (n.d.) End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining. Retrieved at http://ilovemountains.org/resources#mtrenvironment
  2. It’s Getting Hot in Here. (2007). Black Bears Bulldozed in West Virginia. [Blog]. Retrieved at http://itsgettinghotinhere.org/2007/07/20/black-bears-bulldozed-in-west-virginia/
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). Mid-Atlantic Mountaintop Mining. Retrieved at http://www.epa.gov/Region3/mtntop/
  4. Reece, Erik. (2006). The Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness. New York: Penguin Group
  5. Freeman, C., Bekoff, M., & Bexell, S. M. (2011). GIVING VOICE TO THE ‘VOICELESS’. Journalism Studies, 12(5), 590-607. doi:10.1080/1461670X.2010.540136
  6. West Virginia Mountain Odyssey Maps. (2013). West Virginia Coalfields Map. [Map]. Retrieved at http://www.wvhighlands.org/Pages/Maps_S_Coal.html
  7. Think Progress. (2010). Paul on Mountaintop Removal: ‘I Don’t Think Anyone’s Going To Be Missing A Hill Or Two Here and There’. [Image]. Retrieved at http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2010/06/13/102235/rand-paul-mountaintop/
  8. Banerjee, Neela. (2013). Federal Court Backs EPA Regulation of Mountaintop Removal. Los Angeles Times. [Image]. Retrieved at http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-court-epa-mountaintop-removal-regulation-20130423,0,5501419.story
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