Green forests cover steep slopes on each side of the road, which turns from blacktop to dusty gravel. Modest homes are nestled into the bottomlands along a creek with gardens that grow corn and zucchini under a hot summer sun.
The first sign of the devastation above is a glimpse of a treeless mesa, a landform more appropriate in the West.
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As Neece navigates his Ford F-150 pickup truck past an abandoned security booth, he drives into a barren expanse. The forest is gone, replaced by grasses. The tops and sides of entire mountains have been blasted away by dynamite.
Neece stops at about 1,000 feet above the hollow to look at what is left of his mountain, where a coal mining company walked away and left sheer cliffs, exposed and dangerous, after miners gouged the black bituminous coal out of the mountainside with huge earth moving machines.
Neece bought the mountain in 2013 as an investment in coal, just before the bottom fell out of the Eastern Kentucky coal industry in 2015. His tenant left behind nearly two miles of unstable rock-faced cliffs that Neece estimates are as high as 250 feet tall.
By law, mining companies are supposed to ameliorate the damage they cause, a process known as contemporaneous reclamation. Slopes are supposed to be stabilized and returned to their approximate original contour; rainfall needs to be managed; grasses or trees must be planted.
None of that happened.
Now, Neece said, the property is both unsafe and basically worthless, because he isn’t sure if or when, or even how, it will ever be reclaimed.
“They never did nothing,” Neece said angrily of the now-bankrupt coal companies that sheared off the sides of his mountain. “You can’t use it for nothing.”
His experience is emblematic of coal’s accelerating demise in the United States and the environmental devastation its use has left behind. One environmental scientist, Emily Bernhardt of Duke University, said the damage would last “millennia.” A law professor in West Virginia, Pat McGinley, said there are coal areas in his state where “everything is contaminated, environments are wrecked and there’s no responsibility or no consequences.”
In Pennsylvania, underground mine fires burn and iron-laden, acidic water pours into rivers from abandoned mine shafts. In New Hampshire, the iconic sugar maple is threatened by soil damage lingering from coal-induced acid rain. In Florida, a young mother obsesses over air and water pollution from a vast pile of coal ash stored by her local utility. And in Kentucky, the multi-billion dollar cost of reclaiming abandoned mines like Neece’s far exceeds the amount of surety bonds left behind by an increasing number of bankrupt coal companies.
Across Appalachia, mountaintop removal and other forms of surface mining have scarred an area of more than 2,300 square miles in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee. Nationwide, over a million acres of land used by still operating, idle or abandoned mines need to be cleaned up and reclaimed—a job President Biden’s new $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill can only begin to address.
“The size of this problem is absolutely massive,” said Eric Dixon, a researcher who has studied abandoned mine lands nationally.
Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and has contributed more to global warming than either oil or gas. By one estimate, 46 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere since 1750 have come from coal, raising seas that threaten major cities and supercharging hurricanes.
The world has responded. The amount of U.S. electricity generated from coal dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent since 2005, though it’s projected to tick back up to 23 percent this year. The European Union is moving even more quickly away from coal. And at the United Nations climate talks last month in Glasgow, 40 nations said they would phase out the use of coal.China and India, which burn two-thirds of the world’s coal, refused to make that pledge, as did the United States and Australia, a major coal exporter. And while Chinese President Xi Jinping said in September that China would stop building coal plants overseas, the nation continues to build coal plants domestically and still gets most of its electricity from coal. In fact, China’s greenhouse gas emissions from coal alone exceed the total emissions of the United States.U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has said that ”accelerating the global phaseout of coal is the single most important step” toward meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.