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TOXIC: West Virginia

VBS investigates mountain-top removal in Appalachia - and shows us what the end of the world looks like.
August 18, 2009, 12:00am

We went to West Virginia to investigate mountain-top removal – which a way of extracting coal from deposits under mountains. Instead of drilling into the mountain and sending men underground to take out the coal in the traditional way, they just take the whole top of a mountain off. A mountain is built like a cake. You have your worthless rock-minerals, whatever, and then you have your icing, which is the coal. Then you have another layer of rock, another layer of icing, and so on. The layers of coal, which are called seams, can vary from two feet to twelve feet in height. In West Virginia there are huge seams of coal. So, just imagine you have this cake and you want to get the icing out. Do you go in with your finger and try to get all the icing out from in between the two layers? Or do you just say, "Fuck it," and take the top off? It's a great idea if you're dealing with cake, but unfortunately it has really ill effects on the environment and anyone living within a 100-mile radius. This will eventually affect more and more of the country too, because all the shit that comes off the mountain goes into their water system, which connects to larger water systems. The companies try to play it off by saying that they're developing flat land. On flat land, theoretically, you can put a mall or a Wal-Mart. But when they do mountaintop removal and make the land flat, the substructure is so compromised that the things they've built have been condemned. After a couple of years, the walls and plumbing start busting up because of the structure settling. The reason a lot of people think the Appalachians were settled was because of coal, but coal was only discovered in the 1700s. The Cherokees, who had been pushed out of their land in the Carolinas, settled in the Appalachians because that land was so rich and bountiful. There is plenty of water and there are valleys that don't freeze in the winter. For subsistence, it's perfect. You have to work hard, but you are your own boss and you don't have to participate in capitalist culture. So when you take the land away and fuck up the water, you force people into a situation they aren't traditionally accustomed to. You take their independence away. There's a real culture shock to losing the land as a source of life and goodness. People are like, "Why don't they just move?" It's not about that. These people have been living on this family land for hundreds of years. And it's not just principle. Why should the giant hand of a corporation be able to flick you off like a little flea? — Producer Meredith Danluck