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Erin Ann Thomas

The New River

The Weekly Snippet: Selection from Coal in Our Veins

The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world and one of the few, other than the Nile, that moves from south to north on the globe. It curves through mountains covered with thick greenery that slants up on either side, and in the spring and summer months professional river guides steer groups of four to twelve tourists straddling bright colored inner tubes through the rapids. After I left Reverend Day near the mining memorial in Sago, I drove south to meet up with some friends in Fayetteville to take a trip down the river. Before my group set off, my friend Greg asked a group of guides why they had chosen their occupation. I was expecting them to mention the danger and the rush of adrenaline or the beauty of working outdoors. One nicknamed Chicken shrugged his shoulders: “You can be a river guide or a coal miner, there’s not much else.”

I dug my paddle into the current. Feeling the push against the muscles in my arm unleashed something gutsy and raw. I am in mountain country. My body awakened. I am alive—this thought reasserting itself with each stroke. I remembered how, along the River Napo in Ecuador, the guide had let me ride through the rapids bronco style, gripping a rope on the front of the raft and balancing with my arm raised high over my head. He had turned over the guide’s oar and let me steer our group through a section of the river. One of the older women crouched low in the tube because she was afraid I would tip us. Chicken had a wild look in his eye, but I knew not even he would turn over the paddle to me—too much liability.

The landscape along the New River was surprisingly similar to the River Napo—tawny colored boulders and trees wound with vines. Forty feet up from the river, a railroad track was just visible, carrying cars full of coal from sites beyond the mountains. The smoke rising from the engine seemed lyrical on first glance, but the mines from which they traveled were likely strip mines.

Company owned roads block pleasure-seekers who come to camp or raft in West Virginia from witnessing anything but a pristine image of the land. In such dense forest, it takes only few miles of wildness to cover the destruction from the mountaintop removal that is in process behind. This, according to activist and local resident Julia Bonds, is West Virginia’s “best kept dirty secret.”

The New River is like the River Napo in more than just appearance. Ecuador has begun to market jungle tours and rafting to protect its rainforests against the intrusion of oil companies who drill, dig, and send pipeline through the forest, a process that makes it impossible for the local natives to continue their way of life. This sort of industrial invasion is something I tend to associate with communities in developing countries, not in the United States. But in both West Virginia and Ecuador, it is either eco-touring or fossil fuels—there isn’t much else in terms of larger-scale economics. The primary jungle around the River Napo is reputedly the most biologically diverse rainforest in the world, and the growth that blankets much of the mountains and hills in West Virginia is the most diverse hardwood forest. Classified as mixed mesophytic, these woods support over eighty species of trees, where most others sport only two to three. The foliage that blankets West Virginia is the oldest in the United States, and some ecologists believe it is the “mother forest” from which tree species of the eastern temperate zone have spread.

Mountaintop removal (MTR), a practice opposed by two-thirds of West Virginians, begins with clear cutting the tree cover, decimating the plant and animal species that live within. The bedrock is blasted with explosives. In West Virginia, this averages three hundred pounds a day, creating a much larger detonation than the shots used to blast coal in my grandfather’s day. Clouds of coal dust rain down on towns; the foundations of houses and wells crack; boulders are launched into the nearby communities, and occasionally through roofs. After the earth is broken up, draglines—tractors up to twenty stories tall, with buckets capable of scooping one hundred tons of soil—remove the overburden, the technical term for up to six hundred feet of mountain that lie between the miners and the coal seam, typically not more than a few feet thick. The removed soil is dumped into valley fills, blocking streams and poisoning water downstream in a state where a third of the residents still draw groundwater. Employing fewer miners and operating above ground, MTR is much safer than underground mines such as Sago, extracting coal with fewer immediate human casualties. Historically, graveyards mark mining sites where all other indications of mining activity have ceased, reminding us of the human cost of carbon energy. In the case of mountaintop removal, the graveyard is the lasting impacts on the land.

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