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Students' learning takes flight over mountaintop removal sites

Students' flight over mountaintop removal sites instilled a sense of need to protect and preserve Berea's Appalachian values.

Student photographs of mountaintop removal sites.

Through educational efforts to engage students with some of the social and environmental challenges found in Appalachian culture, Berea college continues to make tremendous strides toward empowering tomorrow’s leaders to protect and preserve their communities.

In order to preserve this legacy of Berea college’s commitments to sustainability and Appalachia, several students took a weekend field trip on Nov. 1, to the Hazard Airport in Perry County to see firsthand the effects of mountain top removal within the region. Through their class trip, students found how their learning extended beyond the classroom.

The students, who were a part of the course Sustainable Appalachian Communities offered at Berea college, were allowed to fly in groups of three in a small aircraft in order to see the environmental effects of Eastern Kentucky’s coal extraction of what is considered to be one of the nation’s most bio-diverse forest regions in the United States. The students were also able to get a glimpse of the coal companies’ attempts to reclaim and rehabilitate the older sites with sod, erosion tiers, and sparse planting of trees that has caused many social and environmental groups in the Commonwealth a great deal of concern. Many of the pictures that were compiled were displayed on social networking sites to illustrate to classmates the seriousness of the problem. “These pictures are incredible and awful,” commented Beth Bissmeyer, a 2009 graduate who majored in English and Speech Communication, with a minor in Appalachian studies. “It amazes me that many people call this progress.”

The aerial views displayed a stark comparison between the rich, fertile and colorful forests and the vast expanse of the stripped, dusty and hollow remains that were left exposed over the extraction sites. In some areas, teal blue slurry ponds that were once used to chemically wash the coal were left abandoned; leaving patches of brown grass and traces of erosion that left deep, muddy rivulets down the side of the mountain and in some cases, ran off into nearby streams. The narrow walls of drainage tiers also showed evidence of similar patterns of erosion, and the piles of dust and sediment could be seen and smelled not only from the airport, but also in the nearby towns transporting and processing the coal. Several of the students fought back anger and tears as they expressed their overwhelming disappointment with what they saw.

“That made me physically sick,” exclaimed Zack Danneman. “And those ‘reclamation efforts’; what the heck was that? Those beautiful mountains are just gone. And all they do is put down a patch of grass and a couple of trees?”

Samantha Cole’s eyes welled with tears as she shared, “I come from this area, and it just made me want to cry. I just wish we could find a better way to instill some community pride so that stuff like this wouldn’t happen.”

The students have learned through the course about the effects of mountain top removal and mineral extraction not just upon the environment, but also how the region’s dependence upon fossil fuel consumption has impacted the surrounding communities. The coal and mineral extraction has affected the number of jobs and wages within these communities, their ability to be self-sufficient, the poverty and welfare rates, “brain drain”, and access to resources such as funding for healthcare and education in schools. The students were given the option to take the course as a liberal arts perspective to learn about some of these challenges in the Appalachian region; and in order to learn practical and applicable methods toward developing solutions to these problems.

As outlined by the college’s institutional mission, Berea college continues to offer many programs, both to its students and through its extension programs, to provide educational opportunities that serve the Appalachian region. Berea, which was founded in 1855 as the first coeducational and interracial college in the United States, began its mission to provide educational opportunities for the inhabitants of what was then known as the mountain region in 1895 under the administration of President William Goodell Frost. Because Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War, Frost believed that the mountain students, who were “uncontaminated by slavery”, could not be abandoned and deprived of intellectual opportunities if the North and South were to practically eliminate their social and cultural barriers. Frost believed that under “proper guidance” that students could attend a college of moral ideas through their engagement in practical Christian work, that the educational opportunity would allow the mountain people to show the rest of the nation the distinct advantages to simple living, strong work ethic and the Mountaineers’ distinct moral character.

Berea has continued this tradition through the development of the college’s service learning programs, liberal arts education, institutional commitments and work study requirements. In 1979, the college opened a permanent exhibition on mountain life in its Appalachian museum. A special collections library was developed which provided an extraordinary collection of primary source manuscripts, publications, and other artifacts that have documented the culture and educational work done by the college for the Appalachian region. Programs have been used through Berea’s Appalachian Center to improve child and adult literacy, provide vocational, craft and agricultural education, connect communities to aid agencies, teach agricultural and alternative energy methods and provide training and development opportunities for some of the regions economically distressed communities through programs like Berea’s Brushy Fork Institute or Entrepreneurs for the Public Good.

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