People often ask, “Are there pictures of the mountains before mountaintop removal coal mining destroyed them?” Thanks to the United States Geologic Survey and Google Earth, they are right here at your fingertips!
Load image overlay to show McRobert’s terrain before
mountaintop removal coal mining began. (Download these images by clicking on the pictures below)
Pine Mountain is one of the few “ridge and valley” mountains in Southern Appalachia that overlaps with the central Appalachian coalfield of the Cumberland Plateau. Its folded layers tower above a dozen coalfield counties in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Communities that are 3 centuries old are innovators and survivors in this rugged landscape. Their amazing music, outlook on life, and sense of place are rare in this world.
This video chronicles two of the hardships these wonderful people faced in the last 170 years: The American Civil War and Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining.
I lived at the head of Choppin Branch Road in McRoberts with my wife Debra, just beneath TECO Coal’s mountaintop removal strip mine. Living beneath this mine has been a frightening experience. TECO set off explosives daily that would shake the entire house. I had to go underneath the house more than once to try and repair damage to my foundation.
The blasting was bad, but it was the floods of 2002 that destroyed us. My house and my son’s are located just beneath one of TECO’s valley fills. During the spring and summer of 2002 we experienced more than four flash floods that would leave rocks as big as a cow’s head in my garden. These floods got up under my son’s floor and the clay and mud shifted the posts under his house. One flood even washed out his tool-shed.
The worst came on Christmas morning in 2002. My lovely wife decided that the challenges our family was facing were simply too great and she took her life that morning. She left eight letters describing how she loved us all but that our burdens were just too much to bear. There were a lot of things that lead to my wife taking her life, but TECO’s aggravation was the straw that broke her will. She had begged for TECO to at least replace our garden, but they just turned their back on her.
I look back now and think of all the things I wish I had done differently so that she might still be with us, but mostly I wish that TECO had never started mining above our home. Protection for families like ours is suppose to come from the state and federal regulatory agencies, but instead they look the other way as coal companies destroy entire communities for the sake of profit.
In 1998, TECO, Tampa Energy Company began blasting away the mountain ridges above McRoberts, clearcutting all of the vegetation at Chopping Block Hollow, and replacing it with valley fills. Deforestation and constant blasting from mountaintop removal operations sent the community into a state of severe economic decline. Foundations of homes that had been stable for decades were cracked, homes and gardens were washed away in flash floods, and families were displaced. Insisting that it was an “act of God,” TECO and government inspectors have taken no responsibility for the suffering of the people of McRoberts.
Prayer on the Mountain
On the 10th of December 2002, representatives of the faith community and environmentalists across Appalachia gathered atop a mining site in Letcher County to voice despair over the loss of their mountain and community. The mountaintop removal protest site overlooked the wreckage of recently flooded McRoberts, Kentucky.
Reverend John Rausch, one of the event’s leaders and a member of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, labeled mountaintop removal as, “an abuse of God’s Creation.” The event was aimed at educating the religious community that protecting God’s creation by stopping mountaintop removal is a spiritual duty of the faith community.
Six months following the first “Prayer on the Mountain,” a second prayer event was initiated by Caring for Creation. Twenty-five participants stopped to pray and plant a flower at dozens of “stations” throughout McRoberts and nearby Fleming-Neon. Each “station” was a home, building, or other landmark affected by the flooding resulting from mountaintop removal.
“Through beauty God regenerates the human spirit. The ministry of the Church, symbolized by planting begonias, marigolds and other flowers, responded to the ugliness of greed and indifference with the beauty of creation.”
Demographics of McRoberts, KY
According to Kentucky Census Data, in 2002 McRoberts, Kentucky, population 921 had the following demographic statistics:
For population 25 years and over in McRoberts, the following percentages of the population had the following degrees:
High school or higher: 58.2%
Bachelor’s degree or higher: 2.8%
Graduate or professional degree: 1.8%
The unemployment rate was 4.7%.
The median household income was $18,333 in 2000.
The median house value was $32,800 in 2000.
The cost of coal mining is expensive. A ton is about 30 something dollars, but the cost of coal in the expense that I’ve had, it’s not worth what these strip jobs are doing to people. It’s destroying people.
The good things disappearing are the trees, the wildlife. The streams of water have stopped running. And that’s some of the good parts of life.
It’s nerve-wracking, you can’t sleep at night like you used to. You can’t enjoy yourself. The coal trucks will run you off the road- they run 24 hours a day. The noise will kill you, the dust will kill you. You can’t keep your house clean because of the dust. They’ll come right down to your back door if you don’t stop them. They will really hurt you.
Years ago there was wall-to-wall people. Everyone had a job. The way it’s going now, no one’s ever going to have a job in this area. I figure in 10 years this will be a ghost town. Tumbleweeds will be going down the road. This place will never be like it used to be.
Excerpts from a May 26, 2005 interview conducted by KFTC staff
In the year 2000, TECO [Coal Company] moved in to Choppin Branch in McRoberts, Kentucky. We started having problems with blasting, dust, had some fly-rock go through the roof of a woman’s house. Then right around spring, when the rains come, my mother got flooded out five times in three months, major floods. We started calling the state mine inspector, and this and that, and didn’t get much accomplished.
A few of us [were] having meetings at the community center. Me and my mother went down there. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth got the community of McRoberts organized.
We had a media group, we had a group that talked directly to TECO, we had people who’d write letters, we had people who’d call folks; we were well organized. We started just getting ourselves together. We started contacting the media, we wrote our letters, made our phone calls, and things started happening then.
TECO, I believe they shut them down two weeks, if I’m not mistaken, for one violation. But come to find out was they had too much disturbed earth above there; when it rained there was more runoff than what the ponds could handle, and that there is what it flooded for. We put a stop to that.
[T]he state mining law book, I read it from the front to the back. I used a dictionary to read it with so I could understand it. Then I went on the citizen’s inspection with the mine inspector. I really made them mad because I knew probably more than they knew about it, after I read the state mining law book.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been very helpful, with me and the community of McRoberts. We’ve not had much problems out of McRoberts since then. We haven’t had flooding in McRoberts since then.
Seems like these big corporate businesses, they’ve got more money than what we’ve got, they’ve got more power. I think that’s a dangerous thing because they get their way with the poor people. Lots of folks out there, they have no faith, they have no hope in the system, the government and state mining laws. Whenever I talk to a group of people, I always try to build them up, to let them know that there are things you can do.
I also found out too that one person alone can’t do it. You can’t do it by yourself. You’ve got to have a group of people to do it. At every little demonstration I’ve been at with KFTC, we’ve always had a big group of people going with us. Right there turns heads, and it makes front-page headlines on newspapers. It draws attention to folks. Our government officials – they don’t like that. Our state department – they don’t like that. Because it makes them look bad.
I feel good to be a part of that, because lots of people here in Eastern Kentucky, they feel like there’s no hope, that its not going to get better. But it can get better. I believe that. I won’t stop believing that. We’re people too and we work hard for what we have. And we don’t want somebody coming in and destroying it. That’s taking money out of our pockets and taking money from our kids.
I worked for a strip job for about five, six years. I drove a rock truck, a triple-seven rock truck. I got paid $8.50 an hour to drive that truck. I would have to work 65 hours a week in order to bring home $502.27 a week. I won’t go back to the mines, I’d rather push a shopping cart and bag groceries for a living before I’d go back to the mines. I’ve never met a coal miner retired from the coalmines that came out healthy. They’ve all got black lung, or they’re down in their back.
On a strip job, when they file a permit, to mine so many hundreds of acres of land, in the first permit stage they’ll say “we’re going to replace all this – reclamation with hard wood, put the forest back.â€? But at the end of the job, they revise this permit, or they just put on Kentucky fescue. The state mining law book reads that when they put this reclamation back, it is supposed to be for higher or better use. I can’t see what the Kentucky fescue’s higher and better use is for.
There’s a problem with the flooding too. We’ve got a forest floor, in the woods. When we do get these hard rains, right there soaks the water up. When they do the big reclamation jobs, with that new grass sowed on the ground, that doesn’t hold the water back.
My interest is a future for my kids and everybody else’s kids. Because right now, kids get out of high school, or out of college, and they head out of here. There’s nothing here for them. Parents even tell them to go somewhere else besides the coalmines. I’ve got two boys. I don’t want them to leave here. I’d like for them to find them a good job here. But the way it’s looking right now, I would probably tell them to leave here too, because there’s nothing here for them.