What happened to coal in America

Coal made in the USA: First blast the mountain, then mine

On-site visit at the opencast mine in Coal Valley: The earth is repeatedly shaken by explosions, heavy rocks are thrown high into the blue sky. Bo Webb stands in front of the house where he was born and grew up. His family can look back on a long mining tradition, but five years ago he founded Mountain Justice, a small environmental organization that organizes protests against the coal companies. With sweeping hand movements, he describes the overexploitation of nature.

"The mountain is being blown up right next to my house. Open-pit mining eats its way closer to my property every day. Boulders regularly end up in my garden, the dust from the explosions trickles onto my table. Man should sue them."

This particularly inexpensive form of open-pit mining is the so-called "Mountain Top Removal": entire mountain peaks are simply blown up. Then huge excavators remove the earth in order to get to the coal-bearing seams as quickly and with little effort. In the USA, 1.4 million hectares of original mixed forests had been plowed by the coal industry by the end of 2010, forests that until recently stored CO2.

"The untouched mixed forests, the rolling hills, become a lunar landscape within a few days. The trees are simply burned. Nothing will grow here for a long time because the fertile humus has been removed."

Despite this immense landscape destruction, the activities of environmental organizations such as Mountain Justice are not welcomed by the residents of Coal Valley. After all, the coal company Massey Energy is the largest employer in the structurally weak region, and in times of crisis people fear for their last jobs. The mood is now so heated that there have already been death threats and fights. Bo Webb writes on maps how fast the house-high excavators from Massey Energy eat their way into the mountain landscape - a difficult task. In order not to come into conflict with the armed security officers, he can only observe the demolitions from publicly accessible locations:
Nobody can deny me a visit to the cemetery, as he explains with a wink.

"Here, right next to this little cemetery, the Howlbelt Mine begins. At over 20 miles it is the largest in West Virginia. The cemetery quiet is over here - that's disrespectful."

Back in the car, he tells us that you are not allowed to fish in the whole region, because the limit values ​​for mercury are exceeded by 23 times. The groundwater is also contaminated by the wastewater from coal processing. Bo Webb stops his car again. The primary school is just a stone's throw from the chemical coal processing plant. Again and again the wind drives black clouds of dust over the neglected schoolyard.

"There, look at my hands, they are completely black from the coal dust that sticks to the air duct of the school building. The air conditioning system sucks in the dusty air here and then pumps it into the classrooms."

The health authorities have known about the dangerous situation for years.

"A 17-year-old girl who attended school up to 8th grade died of kidney cancer, two classmates followed her. Then the former headmaster, two other teachers and the caretaker. All died of cancer. Since 2006 there have been ten at this school People died from it. Could it be a coincidence? A judge ordered the dust to be scientifically examined, which found that every day the children breathe a dangerous chemical "dust cocktail" made from heavy metals. That was three years ago - and nothing happened. "

Marsh Fork Elementary School is a sad symbol of thoughtlessness. Another time bomb is ticking 100 meters above the elementary school: The chemical waste water from the coal plant is pumped into a gigantic pool there, Bo Webb explains to me. Only a simple rock dam should prevent the sewer from pouring into the valley. Mining engineers have long warned that it is only a matter of time before this dam breaks. Bo Webb, shaking his head, wonders if a major environmental disaster will have to happen before politicians in West Virginia and Washington are roused.

"I'm ashamed of America. Here in Coal Valley alone, Massey Energy makes three to four billion dollars in profits annually. But who pays for this destruction? We, the citizens - and the government keeps on watching."