As a nation, we love coal. Over 50% of our electricity comes from coal, and it’s a natural resource that we have lots of. It’s an abundant energy source right here in our own country. Each time we flip the light switch, turn on the TV, or warm up dinner in our microwaves, we should be grateful for coal.

But it’s not all happiness and lights. The trouble starts from the very beginning, when you have to get the coal out of the ground. Traditionally, we have engaged in underground coal mining and strip mining. But more recently, we’ve moved to mountaintop removal mining. The name is just as it implies. The top of the mountain – up to about 400 feet of it – is blown off, exposing the seams of coal, which are then extracted and hauled away. The benefit of this method is that it’s cheap. And theoretically, cheaper extraction means cheaper power for us consumers. Compared to digging deeply into the mountain, structurally supporting the tunnels, sending people in to dig out the coal, and then hauling it out of the mountain, it’s pretty easy to blow off the top of the mountain. It also takes many fewer people to accomplish, which is not only cheaper, but puts fewer lives at risk.

But what a toll it takes! The video clip below shows the scope of it – sort of. I filmed it from an intact mountain (hence the trees in the foreground) overlooking an area that has been mined and is no longer active. Note how far there are no trees, and how much lower the ground is in the mined areas. And this mine actually goes quite a bit farther to the right than the video shows. It was sobering to see.

Here are a few of the problems with mountaintop removal as a means of extracting coal: the explosions to remove the mountain are enormous, rattling everything and causing structural damage to homes and buildings. It also takes a while to blow up that much mountain, and over time the ongoing explosions rattle nerves as well as structures. They fill the air with dust, creating air pollution that people and animals breathe, and that coats everything. Then there’s all the earth that is displaced that isn’t coal. Where to put it? Much of it gets dumped into nearby valleys. The environmental impact of it all is enormous. Flora and fauna have been blown up, animals flee, and earth is exposed which causes erosion. Ecosystems are disrupted both in the direct path of the mining and also under the discarded rubble. Waterways are polluted. Toxic minerals and metals are exposed. And it takes decades for the landscape to recover. And these are just some of the problems with the extraction process. It doesn’t begin to take into account things like the CO2 emissions from burning coal, or the health care costs of people who live in the region.

On the flip side, the nation’s demand for electricity continues to grow. As long as we keep asking for power, companies will seek ways to supply it. And we aren’t exactly docile if our lights don’t turn on when we want them to. What’s more, coal is one of two major industries in West Virginia. Mining provides much needed jobs (though not as many as it used to), and a tax base that supports education, hospitals, and infrastructure. We met State Senator John Unger, who explained that without coal mining, there would be a serious shortage of tax funding for necessary services. As a result, the legislature and government give mining companies the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, we heard the ambivalence of citizens, who live with the trade-offs between employment and environment every day. Senator Unger commented that it often feels as though it’s a choice between economic justice and environmental justice. What impossible choices to make.

-Nancy Michaelis