Students’ Research Aids Activists
Reporting from the Scene
Stacey Litner ’06 had a skeptical bent. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m hearing about MTR from David Orr’s perspective, but what do people in the area think?’” So the triple major (philosophy, law and society, and environmental studies) traveled to Boone, West Virginia, during fall break, where she interviewed more than a dozen people, shot eight hours of video, and compiled a 33-minute DVD titled Stories from the Ground: An Oral History in Threatened Appalachia.

“I went with the intention of interviewing people recommended by an environmental group; I didn’t realize that such opposite sides would be represented. When I realized this, I tried to also interview people who are in favor of MTR. But the coal miners can’t talk about it or they’ll get fired,” she says. “Most of the people I talked to are afraid of losing their land. Lots of residents have already left—the coal companies buy their land and then demolish the houses.” Seeing the destruction affected her deeply. “I was completely shocked that you can’t see any of the destruction from the road,” she says. “When I first got there, I thought it wasn’t as bad as everyone had said it was. And then I saw it. It’s bad.”

Seeing MTR from Afar
What if people far from Appalachia could actually see the destruction caused by mountaintop-removal mining, visible mostly from the air? Gavin Platt ’06 helped create a “virtual flyover” of a six-county area of West Virginia affected by MTR mining.

Working with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Science Impact Center at Prescott College in Arizona, Platt added data to a digital elevation model to show not only the effect of leaching heavy metals from coal slurry impoundments, but also the locations of schools and homes in valley basins that could be affected by flash floods and the density and distribution of native and invasive species of plants. “The model can serve as an evocative policy tool, and because it’s visually compelling, all audiences can understand it. After the USGS got our most recent data, they projected out 10 to 20 years, so the model can show the mountaintops going down and the number of coal slurry impoundments increasing,” he says. An environmental studies major from a Pennsylvania mining community, Platt says the issues involved in MTR mining, such as the permanent transformation of the landscape, the fouling of water supplies, and the endangerment of local communities, “really hit home.”

Much of the destruction is visible only from the air or atop the mountains.

Harvesting Appalachian Wind
At Professor David Orr’s suggestion, Mike Roth ’06 studied maps showing average wind speeds in Appalachia and began to think it might be possible to harvest wind there. After researching the idea, the environmental studies major wrote an op-ed piece proposing that Massey Energy Company stop MTR and instead erect wind turbines; he submitted it to several publications.

“I framed the question this way: Mountains are a resource. How can you best use them? Is it possible to have a different type of economy in Appalachia, based on wind power and supported by farming, tourism, forestry, and underground mining? It has the potential to allow the coal companies to remain profitable, for local citizens to have jobs, for environmentalists to be happy because the mountains are still there, and for the politicians to be happy because they can get tax revenues from the energy sales.” Based on evidence from preliminary studies, says Orr, a professional wind assessment company has agreed to pursue comprehensive studies of the wind speed on Kayford Mountain, owned by activist Larry Gibson. “Our goal is to turn Massey Energy from a seller of coal to a seller of electrons,” Orr says.

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