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Appalachian Class Visits ''Removed Mountains''

Dr. Richard Olson’s Sustainable Appalachian Communities class took a field trip at the end of last month, September 28-30, to Eastern Kentucky to discover first-hand the effects of mountaintop removal, a mining technique that involves the removal of up to 1,000 vertical feet of a mountain, which is blasted away to get to the thin coal seams underneath.

The class spent an entire weekend learning about mountaintop removal. Photo by Priya Thorensen

The debris is typically scraped into adjacent river or creek valleys and is known as valley fill. According to Olson, “The trip is an essential part of grounding theory in reality in Central Appalachia. It brings a lot of concepts to life.”

Friday was spent at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Pine Mountain, Kentucky. Here the group listened as naturalist Ben Begley explained the formation of the Appalachian Mountains, as well as the economics behind mountaintop removal that is destroying them. The class then heard from Jack Spadaro, a Mine Safety & Health and Environmental Consultant, who is in the book Lost Mountain by Eric Reece, which the class has been reading. Spadaro showed them the short film, Mucked, by West Virginian Bob Gates. According to Ashley Burba, a student in Olson’s class, “The film opened my eyes to the situation that people in this region are constantly facing.”

Saturday the class journeyed to Bad Branch Falls in Letcher County, Kentucky, where they met up with Patty Tarquino, a Berea College graduate who is now the Eastern Kentucky Organizer for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grass-roots organization devoted to issues that affect the Appalachian region. Tarquino discussed small victories for the local communities against the coal companies. The group was then shown a healthy forest site before hiking to a reclamation site on Black Mountain. According to Olson, “Reclamation is a joke; they displace the most diverse temperate forest in North America with a monoculture of a foreign grass.” Echoing Olson’s statements, Burba commented, “The reclamation site on Black Mountain was so depressing, the area seemed useless.” Later that evening, the class dined with local activists, discussing possible internships this coming summer.

Sunday was the highlight of the trip with a flyover out of Hazard, Kentucky, to see a bird’s-eye view of mountaintop removal. Irene DeLuna, one of Olson’s students, was amazed at the destruction stating, “…what really disturbed me was flying over mountaintop removal sites in Hazard and seeing all these McMansions built on top of these sites; we never stop consuming with abandon.” Both Burba and DeLuna plan on joining KFTC to help educate people on this important issue.

The trip itself was an overwhelming success in terms of educating students on issues affecting Appalachia. However, cautioned Olson, “I think it is really important for Berea to recognize the link between our behavior and the destruction of our resources. We need to go beyond political protest by drastically reducing energy and then modeling it for others. Unless the country, as a whole, reduces energy use--no political process is going to save Appalachia.”

*Article written by Kit Cottrell

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