By Molly McCarthy
Nine members of the UMW ecology club traveled to Wise County, Va last week to see a mountaintop removal.
“It’s crazy, it’s like a war,” said sophomore Graham Givens. “I can’t believe it happens in Virginia, or even the U.S.”
Givens, an officer of the UMW Ecology club, was referring to the intimidation tactics of a coal company in Wise County. Members of the club traveled to southwestern Virginia on October 8-10 to see firsthand “mountaintop removal,” or the practice of demolishing entire sections of mountains to obtain coal. The Ecology club has been following the issue for the past three years and wanted firsthand experience.
The club spent three days over fall break observing and speaking with residents who are affected by mountaintop removal. The program, sponsored by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, had several groups come to see the environmental and human damage the procedure causes.
“They take the topsoil off the mountain, and the entire top part of it, to get to the coal,” said senior Justine Rothbart, also an officer of the Ecology club. “It kills the valleys, contaminates the water, and puts coal dust in the air. It takes 100 years or so to get the topsoil back.”
On the second day, a panel was held with local residents of the town of Appalachia, who spoke to the groups about how their daily lives are affected by mountaintop removal and the coal company.
One couple on the panel said they were too scared to let their children play in their yard because the coal trucks coming down the mountains routinely speed down the small roads, at speeds of upwards of 80 miles per hour.
The truck drivers do this because they get more money for more loads, and an effort to curb their speed has been met with resistance.
The same couple also told the groups that if speed signs were erected, the drivers would cut them down and throw them on residents’ lawns.
One woman on the panel said Sunday was the only day she could relax, because that was the day the trucks don’t run. The panel also stated that when they tried to complain to the coal company, they were told that there names would be made public and discouraged from voicing their complaints.
“The coal company holds such power, it’s like a government,” Givens said. “It runs everything down there. One could say it’s almost un-American.”
Although the club has been involved with and working on the issue of mountaintop removal, in addition to other ecological matters, their personal experience in Wise County has made them all the more committed to the cause.
“The people who live there, they’re affected by this every single day,” said Rothbart. “We need to help them by going to D.C. and lobbying and doing what we can up here. If this keeps going on, we’re not going to have the beautiful mountains. We really need to get the word out.”