Minus the Mountaintops

Flying over our planet is breathtaking.

On the way home from California, we had crossed the Mississippi, and the land beneath us was rising, on its way to meet the Appalachian Mountains.


In this beautiful farm and woods land, the tracks of old river meanders are visible.

The land rises and rises, rivers now cut more deeply, their courses ever-deepening.


Here is what I think the geologists call a “dissected plateau”.

Beautiful land, land with hardly a level acre anywhere, land tree covered and green, a land whose people love their homes.


I’d now like to bring up the subject of coal.


Fossil carbon.

The light of the sun, captured by trees and plants, turned into plant material, buried deep underground, is subjected, over the years, to intense pressure. And heat. Peat turns to lignite turns to sub-bituminous, then bituminous coal. The first stages are all sedimentary, my dear Watson, but the last stage, after untold years more, yields anthracite coal. Anthracite coal is 80% to 96% carbon. Anthracite burns almost without smoke.

My father had a fondness for anthracite coal. He admired its shiny black hardness, and the potential that was inside each piece. I remember him burning anthracite in an old, cylindrical World-War Two vintage Sears Roebuck cast-iron and steel stove. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents were warmed in winter by coal furnaces. I know of an old basement where a coal furnace still sits. The door to the firing chamber is decorated with mighty art-deco lightning bolts, and in powerful upper-case letters that door proclaims: “INDESTRO”!

The Appalachians are not “INDESTRO”. Underneath their tops are multiple seams of coal, coal thrust upward towards the surface as the mountains were formed. The Appalachians, almost half a billion years old, once taller than today’s Himalayas, are a source for the coal that supplies much of the energy our country produces.

At one time, if you wanted coal, you had to dig a hole, a tunnel. As earth moving technology advanced, holes and tunnels got deeper. Then came strip-mining. Strip off the earth and rock that covers the coal. Remove the coal. A strip mine is just a big, fancy hole. Then came the idea of removing the mountaintops that cover the coal in much of this region. Mountaintop Removal mining came into being about fifty years ago. Mountaintop mining is the cheapest way to get coal, on a cost-per-ton basis.

But only if you ignore the environmental costs.

IMG_4629 IMG_4632 IMG_4633

For an interesting look at what a former “resources” engineer and friends are doing to monitor this and other activities, lick to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/video/thefold/watching-planet-earth-from-west-virginia/2013/08/01/63a19f98-fae8-11e2-8752-b41d7ed1f685_video.html

IMG_4634 IMG_4637 IMG_4639 IMG_4640 IMG_4642 IMG_4653 awesome, sometimes stunning.


2 responses to “Minus the Mountaintops

  1. Great photos again. The destruction from the mining is quite sad to see, but I take some solace in knowing that environmental rehabilitation has improved a lot over the years. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic, but I think in 10 years or so you may not have even known there was mining in those regions. …That’s how good rehab has become in Australia at least. Hopefully USA is similar.

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