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I went to the mountaintop but it was gone

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POSTED: March 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.
This Valentine's Day I celebrated "I Love Mountains Day." I delivered valentines to politicians who keep allowing King Coal to cut the heads off the oldest mountains in the world.
Mountaintop removal uses heavy machinery to remove summits of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee in order to reach low-sulphur coal beneath.
As much as 600 vertical feet may be removed from a mountain, and a mine often encompasses multiple peaks and the forest in between.
About a year ago I was given the opportunity to see what was happening from the air. My pilot was Susan Lapis of SouthWings, who was dressed all in black.
"I'm wearing black for Kentucky," she said.
Soon we were rising in her Cessna above the soft slopes of the Appalachians, which were burning with fall colors.
In seconds we were high enough to see a mountaintop coal mine, a massive gray gouge in the earth, raw and spreading. The strip mine covered miles. On peak after peak, trees had been removed, and mammoth machinery had begun to take down the slopes.
Lapis explained the process as we flew. Miners drill deep into mountains with augers and drop in explosives. Blasts send up geysers of earth and rock. Then huge draglines come and dump what's called "overburden," the rocks lying atop the coal, over the side of the mountain. Trucks haul the coal away.
The overburden fills the valleys, where streams run. Consequently, the federal government reports that more than 700 miles of streams across the central Appalachians have been buried, although environmental groups estimate the figure at twice that.
"If you flew the Space Shuttle and looked down, Appalachia would look like someone with the measles," Lapis said.
In the distance I saw more mines. "We could fly for six hours and see mine after mine," Lapis said.
Imagine leveling a mountain range.
In the communities, people's houses are getting shaken off their foundations. People are turning on their taps and watching water come out black. Rocks are going through roofs. And all around, the land that people have owned and walked and loved is being torn apart.
When you flip a light switch, remember those people, would you? When you open the refrigerator or turn on the dishwasher, remember them.
And remember those mountains.

Ray, author of "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood," believes that conservation should be at the top of the national energy policy.
 

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