Coal: Influence, Controversy, & Destruction

Greening Forward
5 min readApr 9, 2024


This article is a post that comes from Greening Forward’s legacy blog. It was originally written by Charles Orgbon on September 11, 2010.

Coal is vital to life in the Central Appalachians and has been for over 150 years. The Central Appalachian ecoregion stretches from central Pennsylvania through West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky and into northern Tennessee. Coal is by far the largest source of electrical energy in this region. The energy companies that produce electricity from mining and burning coal in small mountain towns of this region employ more people than any other local business. For this region, miners earn good pay without a college education. Sometimes even a high school dropout can earn good pay as a miner or worker in a coal plant.

As shown in the documentary, “Coal Country”, which aired on the Discovery network’s PlanetGreen, coal is a very controversial topic in the central Appalachians. There are essentially two very different groups in the Central Appalachians. Firstly, the largest group would be that of the energy companies and their employees. This includes the families of their employees. Secondly, there is a movement of people who say that coal is dirty.

“It is dirty when you dig out of the ground. It is dirty when you clean it. It is dirty when you burn it,” says Chuck Nelson of Glen Daniel, West Virginia, an anti-coal activist. Saying coal is dirty is an understatement. Especially, after looking at the polluted coal river in West Virginia, where coal was first discovered, yet coal is celebrated in fairs and festivals because it “keeps the lights on” and” puts the food on the table”. But yes, coal does employ many people and gives these small towns a tax base so that they may have schools and roads, but everyone is paying a coal price and it “isn’t cheap”. Chuck Nelson says that when you turn on your tap the water looks like “coffee”.

Cancer and disease are plaguing these small Appalachian towns because coal ash can be found everywhere- even in the drinking water. This coal ash that comes from burning this natural resource is recognized as a carcinogen and has been linked to countless deaths in this region.

Not only is coal dirty, but the mining process is very unfair to the miners that work in unsafe and dangerous conditions for up to 18–20 hour shifts. Recently you may have heard in the news how rescuers working 1,000 feet underground in a mine returned to the surface early one Saturday morning with bad news: a total of twenty-nine died in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in the worst US coal mining accident in 40 years. This mine had a long record of not following mine safety regulations, before an explosion. Or maybe you remember the Tennessee sludge spill that ran over homes. A wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from a coal plant in central Tennessee broke, spilling more than a 500million gallons of waste into the surrounding area. The sludge, a byproduct of ash from coal combustion, was contained at a retention site at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power plant in Kingston, about 40 miles east of Knoxville, agency officials said.

Appalachian environmentalists compared the mess with another spill eight years ago in eastern Kentucky, where the bottom of a coal sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy broke into an abandoned underground mine, oozing more than 300 million gallons of coal waste into tributaries. According to Appalachian Voices, this region is home to almost more species of plants and animals outside of the tropical rainforest, but all of this is being destroyed along with people’s lives.

The coal companies are very much interested in saving money and increasing their profits. Hence, they have found a cheap way to mine coal. By blowing up the top of a mountain in a process called mountaintop removal, they can get to coal quicker and employ fewer people. Why is this a controversial issue? Well, let’s start with the fact that these coal companies are literally blowing up our planet with explosives. When a mine is being blown up, the earth trembles as if there is an earthquake. As the overburden or earthen waste falls down the sides of the mountain they fall into Appalachian headwater streams. Once these streams are polluted, you have virtually polluted every river that they flow into. Once the blowing process is complete you have this barren flat “moonscape” that used to be a mountain. It takes years before the land will be fully replanted, but often non-native species are planted.

With all of the negatives regarding coal, why haven’t the people of this region stood up against the coal companies? If you are anything like Judy Bonds, an outspoken mountaintop removal activist, you will receive death threats. Judy got tired of seeing the “coal dust, blasting dust, and synthetic fuel dust cover everything” in her small town. When activists stand up against the coal companies, the coal company’s workers (most of the population of these small mountain towns) take it personally. If the coal companies leave, many are left jobless. This is explainable from a quote by Upton Sinclair, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author who wrote over 90 books. He once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Central Appalachia relies heavily on the coal companies, but there has to be another answer.

The coal companies have been given too much power. If you speak out against them and you work for them, you are fired and this essentially means you will never work another day in your life for many in Central Appalachia. This means they can build a coal power plant behind your house. You can’t sue them if they have wronged you because they are pals with judges.

You may be wondering how this affects me if I don’t live in Central Appalachia. Much of the US’s total supply of coal comes from this region and is extracted in this process before being sent to energy facilities all over the U.S., including South Carolina.

Think about the information I have given you because it is really scary and decide where you stand on this issue. If you are ready to get involved with this issue, give your federal legislator a call and make sure he knows how much this means to you. Celebrities like Woody Harrelson, an actor, and Kathy Mattea, a singer, and musician, are taking a stand. Woody Harrelson calls mountaintop removal “the most devastating peacetime activity in human history” and “[a] destruction to our nation’s natural and cultural heritage.” He also says, “We should all be dedicated to promoting renewable energy alternatives.” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. remembers a conversation he had with his father about strip mining, “He explained to me that the strip miners were not just destroying the environment, they were permanently impoverishing the region; there was no way that Appalachian communities could rebuild an economy from the barren moonscapes the strip industry left behind.”



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Greening Forward establishes, engages, and empowers a diverse global movement of young people for the protection of the environment.