Words alone can't describe what mountaintop mining is doing to Appalachia, its streams and the lives of its people.
Coal companies have dynamited more than 470 mountaintops and pushed the debris into valleys, burying hundreds of miles of streams and contaminating the water with metals such as nickel, lead, cadmium, iron and selenium.
From those bare expanses, the mining companies strip out the coal and then move on to the next mountain. The treeless landscapes, meanwhile, can create dangerous flash flooding for nearby residents, and the mining debris can render their well water undrinkable.
In a new 20-minute documentary produced by Yale Environment 360 and MediaStorm, Chad Stevens takes his video camera inside the community meetings, homes and offices of the people on both sides of the front lines, capturing their emotions and letting them tell the story. The producers' goal was to show the many views of the conflict and provide an environmental science perspective.
"I wanted us to really show what is happening on the ground there, which is really stunning in some cases and hard to describe in the written word," said Yale's Roger Cohn, an executive producer of Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining.
The video is worth watching.
It flips from residents like Debbie Jarrell of Rock Creek, W.Va., who has fought strip mining on Coal River Mountain:
"What do you tell your grandchildren? We used to have clean water. We used to be able to drink it out of the creek. We used to be able to go up that hollow — well, there's not a hollow now — but we used to be able to go up there and pick berries."
To the people in charge of laws and regulations, like West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin:
"The reality is that 50 percent of the energy for the United States comes from coal. You can't keep the country running without it and be competitive in a global economy. ... We've got to use what we have."
To experts like Jack Spadaro, a mining health and safety consultant and former mine inspector:
"We've just obliterated one of the most advanced ecosystems in the world."
And biology professor Ben Stout of Wheeling Jesuit University:
"We're also burying one of the most productive forests in the world, one very capable of capturing and sequestering carbon."
To industry representatives, like West Virginia Coal Association's Chris Hamilton, whose claims defy science and get at the corporate truth:
"Mountains are not destroyed. Water systems are not destroyed here in West Virginia."
"... I hear that all the time: 'They're impacting our mountains.' Well, they're not 'our mountains'. Those mountains have been bought."
The same arguments erupted again this week at public hearings on mountaintop mining, where the Army Corps of Engineers heard from environmentalists, area residents and hundreds of coal miners worried about their jobs if the federal government tightened its rules.
In Pikeville, Ky., miners said their employers gave them the day off and bused them in to fill the auditorium. Just ahead of those hearings, the Sierra Club released a report saying that other types of mining in Appalachia employ more workers and suggesting that mountaintop mining costs states more that it generates.
The disputes over strip mining the Appalachian Mountains have become raucous, and threatening in some places, where miners fearful for their livelihoods have clashed with protesters fearful for the environment and residents for their mountain homes.
In another new documentary, Coal Country, Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch describes what's going on with mountaintop mining as a war:
"It's families against families," she says. "Upton Sinclair once said that it's hard to get a man to understand something when his paycheck depends upon him not understanding it."