A look at what is going on in West Virginia shows us how ruthless corporations can be to make profits. In West Virginia and all over the Appalachian region, there is a massive push to destroy the landscape and to get at the last deposits of coal available. The new technique is called mountaintop removal, a process of blowing up tops of mountains in order to get at the coal underneath, and then dumping all the debris into nearby valleys. The explosives that are used are up to 100 times stronger than those used in the Oklahoma City bombing, equal to one Hiroshima per week in West Virginia.
Once the mountains are destroyed and the coal harvested, workers scoop out the excess soil and dump it into nearby valleys and rivers. When rainwater runs through this pulverized rock, it is more easily dissolved, releasing highly toxic metal ions (such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, beryllium, chromium and other carcinogenic substances) into local streams, rivers and groundwater. So far, the coal companies have destroyed more than 500 mountains. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that almost 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried since 1992.
The water has become so contaminated that it is poisoning people. According to 21 peer reviewed studies, people that live near mountaintop removal sites have a 50 percent greater risk of fatal cancer and a 42 percent greater risk of birth defects than the general population. Because people can’t rely on locally sourced water, they are forced to depend on bottled water. What were once biologically diverse ecosystems have now been pulverized into barren wastelands. Plant and animal wildlife have lost their homes. Around 100 different species of birds are now gone.
Because many of these regions are economically devastated, mining companies are able to buy off the land from families that have lived there for generations, ripping apart local communities. There has been a massive drop in employment in the mining industry due to the industry’s widespread reliance on mountaintop removal, which employs far fewer workers. In a couple decades, employment in the industry has dropped from its peak of 130,000 to 14,000, almost one-tenth of what it once was. This has meant that areas with a lot of heavy mining have the highest unemployment rates in the region. In the city of Welch, 93 percent live on less than $10,000 per year, 40 percent of families live below the poverty line, and 28 percent of high school students dropout, compared to eight percent nationally.
The extent of destruction in areas such as rural West Virginia shows how far capitalists will go to squeeze the last drops of profit from nature and humanity. They are literally willing to blow up the country.