This article appears in the January 2011 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
We were about a dozen strong, an eclectic band of pilgrims from the recent “Sacred Soil” gathering at the Louisville Festival of Faiths resolutely trudging our way up a coal-filled mountain in Leslie County in Eastern Kentucky to see what we could see.
Or not see.
Like the top of the mountain.
It was a fine day for an upward walk: blue sky, plenty of sunshine, the dark and prickly mountains, their tree limbs bare, looming up all around us. While inside our van we had already come face to face with two local landmarks — Greasy Creek and Tim Couch Pass, the latter a splendid name given to a natural cut in the mountains in honor of Leslie County quarterback legend Tim Couch. The third landmark would be a man named Daymon Morgan, an 84-year-old World War II Iwo Jima survivor — he of the cowboy hat, brown leather jacket, work boots, plaid shirt and bib overalls.
The coal mountain we would climb rose up behind Morgan’s house, a flat white structure barely visible from the road — a road that eventually traverses the landscape from Lower Bad Creek to Huckleberry Ridge, poetic names now forever scarred in fact and memory by the mountaintop removal of the coal around and beneath them.
When you do the journalism research on Morgan — and his attire — you learn he is often given a part in the outlier’s story on mountaintop strip-mining, a hideous, destructive — and less expensive — process in which the top 300 to 400 feet of a mountain are blown off to lay bare the coal below.
The obvious question: What are you then to do with the top of the abbreviated mountain?
Morgan is the perfect spokesman for his cause — colorful, quotable, tough, stubborn and bone-deep angry. He is a coal company holdout in a hollow surrounded by decapitated mountains. He talks of a time when he and many of his neighbors planted orchards and vegetables on the land, fished its streams and hunted its ridges.
“Now everything up there is all gone,” he said.
We walked higher up the incline, past lanky white oak and maple trees. They are what’s grown back after the initial looting of these mountains — the clear-cutting of the forests for timber, trees that took centuries to grow all hauled away in just a few years.
Morgan told stories of how the outside-owner coal companies came in 100 years ago and bought mineral and timber rights to the land from landowners for a few cents an acre — rights that then gave the companies complete access to the surface land to bring up the coal. The landowners also got to pay the property taxes.
About halfway up the mountain the road leveled out, allowing us to clamber up a bulldozed ridge and look out over a vast strip mine in the Appalachian sky, hundreds of acres of tortured ground and rutted roads. Others in our group pushed farther up the mountain, saw open miles of the same destruction — and the sadly ineffective efforts to reclaim it with grass and trees.
There have been, of course, many stories done on mountaintop removal. The balanced ones offer both sides: needed jobs vs. the environment, coal vs. still very inadequate alternative sources of energy, severance taxes and tax breaks vs. a government in economic distress, maintaining a mountain way of life as opposed to moving out.
There are the documented, compelling arguments from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth about the damage to the land and its people from mountaintop-removal mining and coal-fired energy plants: acres of polluting rubble pushed into nearby creeks; the lurking coal-ash ponds; the excess political power wielded by an industry that now only employs about 18,000 people in Kentucky; the fact that when all health costs are weighed, the industry may now actually cost the state more than it brings in.
The industry — and many coal miners — remind us the jobs are needed, that Kentucky gets about 92 percent of its lower-cost electricity from coal and the nation as a whole about 46 percent. They argue that newer EPA regulations require that the air be cleansed and the land fully reclaimed, even made more useful.
You read or watch those stories and it’s possible to become conflicted. Stand above one of those mutilated mountaintops alongside a man who grew up beneath it and the truth is evident: You can’t ever put back up there what’s been taken away.
But we also like our lights, furnaces and air-conditioning to come on, our column-writing computers to work and our HDTVs to offer us 52-inch images of documentaries on mountaintop coal removal.
There are still a lot of mountains left to climb on this one.
Photo: Courtesy Louisville Magazine