As of Wednesday morning, the death toll had reached 37 and hundreds were still missing. Deadly flash floods had ripped through the howls of eastern Kentucky, taking with them entire families who hadn’t been able to evacuate quickly enough. Volunteers from other parts of the state and region were flocking to help.
But one thing missing from the news stories, on the whole, is a serious discussion of why this terrible thing is happening in this particular place, perhaps because it seems crude to speculate in the face of such catastrophic suffering. . But to mention the fact that these deadly floods are happening in coal country is not speculation.
Nor is it speculation to point out that in recent years the area, which bears the scars and high rocky ledges left by surface mining, has been plagued by the most brutal practice of a brutal industry – the removal of the mountain top, the last gasp of the coal barons to reach the remaining thin seams of coal by blasting the mountain peaks and shoveling the debris into the valleys below.
And the debris? Coal companies call it “overburden” because they consider it to be a foreign material preventing their digging machines from extracting the last remaining seams of coal. It used to be trees, plants, rocks and topsoil – things that slow down water when there are storms.
Thinking about this reminded me of a 2008 forum I attended at the Webb School. It was called “Peace Jam” and focused on the effects of mountaintop coal mining on the environment. The most interesting segment featured a debate between Knoxville attorney Dawn Coppock, author of the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Act, a bill that sought to ban coal mining in our state’s mountaintops. Representing the other side was Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, who presented a clever video praising the benefits of surface mining.
“We take steep, inaccessible hillsides and leave usable land,” Caylor said, explaining that coal companies pay a landowner “$3,000 an acre for temporary use of their land, and when we’re done , the landowner is left with flat land and wide roads.”
Caylor, who was extremely tall and very authoritative, talked about jobs and tax revenue. He said that global warming does not exist. In my notes, I say he once ate a piece of coal to prove he was harmless.
Coppock, who may be 5-2 heels, shot down his talking points like a sniper, pointing out that Tennessee’s coal mining operations had already shrunk to almost nothing and that tourism is an industry much more lucrative in Tennessee than coal mining.
“There are only about 327 surface miners in the entire state of Tennessee,” Coppock said. “And we don’t want flat ground. We can set up an airport without blowing up the top of a mountain. And we’re much more into tourism here than we are in Kentucky. We are not in competition with Kentucky for tourism. People come here to see our pristine mountains.
She kicked his ass. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t see a similar result in Nashville.
Coppock carried his bill in Nashville for about six years. The Senate approved it for a year, but it still stalled in the House, despite signing Bill Dunn as the title sponsor. Lawmakers were baffled by her persistence and kept trying to figure out who was paying her (the answer to that question was Nobody). After years of banging his head against the wall (at his own expense), Coppock recognized where the political winds were blowing (both chambers shifted from Democratic to Republican Party control during those years) and decided to stand. concentrate on her law practice (she is one of the top adoption attorneys in Tennessee).
Coming back to the here and now, it will be interesting to see if the discussion about flooding in coal country grows wider in the coming weeks. Makers need to recognize that flooding is a feature, not a bug.
betty bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.