Nicholas School Internship Blogs

A Trip to Almost Heaven
by -- June 28th, 2016

“Be open to whatever comes next.” For the past month, this has been my motto. As I have plunged into the world of mountaintop mining (MTM) research, this mantra of John Cage, a composer so experimental he once wrote a piece that was 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, has guided my outlook towards my work. So in the spirit of openness, when I got an email at 9:00 A.M. on Monday morning asking if I would join a group leaving to do some storm sampling in West Virginia at noon that day, I hastily packed all (or rather, most) of the essentials and hightailed it back to the lab to help pack the truck.

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We’re all smiles when the automatic water sampler works

The drive up to West Virginia was breathtaking. Each bend in the road revealed a view more fantastic than the one before, with seemingly endless peaks of green, which faded to blue as they inched further into the horizon. With the tenth highest poverty rate, the third highest cancer death rate, and the highest drug overdose death rate in the country, I have always viewed West Virginia’s epithet, “almost heaven,” as the cruelest form of irony; however, seeing for myself the rugged beauty of the land, I’m beginning to understand why my great-grandfather always referred to his home as “West, by God, Virginia.”

Ballard Fork: my favorite site

Ballard Fork: my favorite site

Our first stop in West Virginia to set up the automatic water samplers gave me my first glimpse at the topographic and ecological change caused by MTM with a view of a valley fill. In the process of surface mining, approximately 300 meters of soil and rock are removed from the tops of mountains using explosives to expose seams of coal below. This “overburden” is then pushed into adjacent valleys, creating valley fills. Staring at the “reclaimed” land before me, I couldn’t stop thinking of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the primary law governing the regulation of surface mining, stipulation that mined land must be “restored to its original condition or improved.”

A valley fill

A valley fill

The next day, which abruptly began with me stumbling out of bed at 5:30. Motivated by an acknowledgement that “this is what’s next,” I was able to get a more expansive view of reclaimed mining land.

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A view of reclaimed land

After several hours of careening back and forth along winding mountain roads to collect water data at a dozen or so sites, we had a few moments to spare, so we followed a path up to the top of a mountain to get a better look at the valley fills below. My reaction to this scene was unexpected; I wasn’t horrified, as I thought I would be. The view wasn’t immediately disturbing. It simply looked out of place. The treeless landscape looked more like the alpine tundra of the Rocky Mountains than the lush forests of the Appalachians. My nonchalance towards this scene was more concerning to me than the sickening smell of sulfur that consumed some of our sites after the rain and the piles of trash I found floating down the streams. Seeing only a small fraction of the mining complex (and not an actively mined portion at that), it was so easy for me to slip into the notion that the damage caused by mining is not really that bad.

Many parts of this region do not have municipal waste disposal programs, so some areas by streams have become de facto garbage dumps.

Many parts of this region do not have municipal waste disposal programs, so some areas by streams have become de facto garbage dumps.

I am starting to appreciate through this research that some of the most damaging consequences of MTM are difficult to visualize and therefore easy to dismiss. Mining’s dramatic alteration of the land cannot be assessed in its entirety without an aerial view and even that is limited in its two-dimensionality. Beyond the physical alteration, the site I had guessed would be one of the most pristine, judging by the picturesque character of the surrounding forest, had a conductivity reading–roughly a measure of the “saltiness” of the water– of 1,600 μS. The EPA’s conductivity benchmark for protecting the aquatic life of the region is 300 μS, indicating that the “pristine” stream before me was likely impaired by mining drainage. The illusion (or perhaps delusion) that I experienced, if only briefly, that MTM is not destructive because of the lack of compelling visual evidence before me allows destruction on this scale to continue.

I am walking away from this trip with more thoughts and impressions than I could possibly (coherently) put into words. My overarching impression, however, is that we as community need the sort of creativity and openness called for by John Cage’s motto in order to both accurately communicate the impacts of mountaintop mining and to design means of ecological and economic recovery. Perhaps through our efforts we can reinstate “almost heaven” as an accurate descriptor of the region.

An early morning view from the bunkhouse

An early morning view from the bunkhouse

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