Theresa L. Burriss: Appalachia & Clean Coal

There’s been lots of talk about clean coal these days. Have you seen any of the industry’s commercials? But what you haven’t heard much about since Robert F. Kennedy visited the region back in the day is where coal comes from — the Appalachian Mountains. His son continues to speak out about the region. Ashley Judd a long with many folks in her home state of Kentucky have been doing a lot of activism around mining and the disparities in the Appalachian Mountains there. Judd recently spoke out about a piece Diana Sawyer aired on 20/20 last week called “Children of the Mountains on Appalachian life in Kentucky — Diane Sawyer is also from the state. The piece sparked some reaction in the blogosphere from folks who have been in the trenches working on these disparities just about their whole lives.
I decided to ask Theresa L. Burriss, the Assistant Professor of English & Appalachian Studies at Radford University, about everyday life in Appalachia and what she thought about clean coal and Diane Sawyer’s piece. (Diane Sawyer did a follow-up piece last night on “Mountain Dew mouth”.)
Here’s Theresa…

From your research on everyday life in the Appalachian Mountains, how would you describe the economic and social disparities that often exist? And can you provide a brief historical context to this region of the country?
First, readers need to know that the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency, identifies Appalachia as stretching from New York down to Mississippi. This designation is disputed by many scholars because it’s politically driven. My research/scholarship focus is on Central Appalachia, the area typically (stereotypically) known as “Appalachian.”
If I had to sum up the history of Central Appalachia it would be in terms of colonization. Basically, Central Appalachia is an internally colonized region in the United States. Take any colonial model, apply it to Appalachia, and it fits, from natural resource extraction and labor exploitation to cultural denigration. Coal extraction has ruled Appalachia for over 100 years and is one major, if not the major, reason for the poverty in the area. Coal companies intentionally have created dependent economies in the region, driving out any competing labor/career opportunities. And now, with the massive increase in strip mining, and mountaintop removal in particular, fewer and fewer people are needed to “mine” the coal.
My United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) miner friends, however, don’t refer to those who work on strip mines as miners — they’re heavy equipment operators. If you watched Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 focus on the poverty-stricken children of Eastern Kentucky, you did not get any answers as to why such poverty exists.
If these counties are some of the richest in the nation due to the natural resources located there,
why do they contain the poorest people in the nation? The disparity is telling. Just as the natural resources flow out of the region, so does the money that goes along with them. On top of that, politicians actually give tax breaks to these robbers — although the coal companies can’t go anywhere else to find bituminous coal. It’s not as if they can mine coal in Florida or Iowa.
What particular challenges do many women who live in the Appalachian
Mountains face?

Traditionally, Appalachia is rather conservative when it comes to gender expectations and roles. My friend Marat Moore, a former UMWA coal miner, documents the sexual discrimination many women coal miners faced when they entered the mines officially in the 1970s in her work, Women in the Mines: Stories of Life and Work. Because the work options are so limited in the region, many women are forced to work minimum wage service jobs that don’t provide health insurance or any other type of benefits. And just like the rest of the country, many women are single mothers trying to make ends meet.
Who are some of the Appalachian feminists or heroines? And who are some of the rabble rousers of today? What issues did/do they mobilize around?
Kathy Selvage of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards; Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch; Terri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth; Marie Cirillo, co-founder of the Woodland Community Land Trust; Pauline Canterberry and Mary Miller, the Dustbuster Sisters of Sylvester, WV; Mary Ann Hitt, first with Appalachian Voices and now with the Sierra Club — all these women and many more are fighting to end the horrendous practice of mountaintop removal, a form of strip mining on steroids, that is destroying not only the natural environment and the surrounding communities, but also an entire way of life, a unique culture.
You also have women like Meredith Dean and Edna Gully, co-founders of the Appalachian Women’s Alliance, who seek to empower women, to end cycles of domestic violence, increase educational opportunities, and
protect the environment.
So, too, I think of the many Appalachian authors writing to make a difference. Women such as Ann Pancake, Denise Giardina, Diane Gilliam Fisher, and Marilou Awiakta are activists through their use of the written word, whether poetry or prose.
I think of Hazel Dickens, singer/songwriter, who has utilized her voice and musical talents to speak out against the many injustices Appalachians have faced and continue to face.
Mimi Pickering and Elizabeth Barrett at Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY, produce incredibly moving documentaries on the Appalachian region, showcasing the rich talent here but also highlighting the extensive exploitation and social injustices enacted on the people.
My friend Suzanne Stryk, an artist and naturalist, speaks out against the environmental devastation occurring in our region through her mixed media collages, drawings, and paintings. She and my colleague, Deborah McLaughlin, a dance professor here at Radford University, are collaborating on a performance piece that addresses mountaintop removal.
And there’s a host of other strong, committed, brave Appalachian women daring to speak out and willing to act.
Would you mind explaining mountaintop removal for our readers and how that differs from “traditional” coal mining? Is there a difference between strip mining and coal mining?
Deep mining or underground mining is the traditional practice of extracting coal. Miners enter the mountain through a “hole” they’ve created and use machinery to dig their way into coal seams. In this way, the mountain itself is not destroyed, although many abandoned mines exist throughout the mountains. They actually exist as natural aquifers because sources of water exist in them and the remnants of coal serve to clean the water. Think about your water purifiers — they contain carbon to purify the water.
Strip mining is where the extractors take out huge swaths around the mountain to get to the coal. If you were to view the remains from an aerial perspective, you’d see bare high walls where the coal was mined but no trees can grow back. As the name infers, strips are taken out of
the mountains’ sides.
Mountaintop removal mining is, as I noted in my other responses, is strip mining on steroids. The coal companies use explosives like Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing. In fact, nearly 3 million pounds of explosives are detonated PER DAY in West Virginia alone. Then the guts of the mountain, what those in the industry refer to as “spoil”, are thrown into a valley fill. They literally fill up valleys with the mountains’ guts, destroying streambeds in the process.
An average valley fill is 250 million cubic yards. Over 470 mountains to date have been destroyed in Central Appalachia. Just this past Friday, February 13, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in my own state of Virginia, overturned a lower court’s ruling and has made the permitting process infinitely easier for coal companies seeking to extract coal through mountaintop removal.
The other part that’s necessary to understand is the “cleaning” of the coal. Before the coal is loaded in rail cars and shipped out, a soup mix of toxic chemicals is used to remove impurities. What’s done with this toxic mess when they’re done cleaning the coal? It’s either piped
down into abandoned underground mines, destroying folks’ drinking water (refer to my note above about natural aquifers) or it’s taken to a sludge/slurry pond that is only contained by an earthen dam. Over 300 slurry impoundments exist in the US. If you want to know what happens
when they fail, check out Appalshop’s documentary, produced by Mimi Pickering, on the Buffalo Creek Flood Disaster that occurred in February of 1972. is a searchable online database of all the stimulus package projects that will soon be under way to help the county stop and reverse the economic emergency we find ourselves in. What do you hope to see in store for the Appalachian Mountains?
First, someone needs to educate the current administration that there is no such thing as “clean coal.” It’s folly to throw billions of dollars at the research and development of supposed clean coal technology. And billions of dollars are earmarked for such a useless endeavor in the
stimulus package. Even if scientists perfect carbon capture and sequestration, which occurs at the end of the coal’s life cycle, namely once it’s burned at the power plants, nothing is being focused on the extraction of the coal or the front-end cleaning of the coal. Coal is dirty, plain and simple.
If the federal government is serious about helping Appalachia, then the players must stop bowing to the coal companies, who continue to buy politicians and run roughshod over the Appalachians. Money invested in education, diverse economic projects, sustainable eco-tourism, technology infrastructure and training, green jobs — this will be money
well spent in Appalachia.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
Yes, Appalachians are a strong, diverse, proud people. We are not a throw-away culture. Appalachia should not serve as a national sacrificial area. These beautiful mountains are the second most bio-diverse region in the world, second only behind the tropical rainforest. Why is our nation destroying them at the expense of so-called cheap energy, a source of energy that’s emitting the most C02 of anything in the world and the greatest cause of climate change? It
just doesn’t make sense. And it pisses me off.

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