God-willing, and the creeks don’t rise

In the holler when I grew up, a big rainfall was a glorious thing. In this picture my mom just took and sent me, there’s a bridge missing where the rising water washed it away; a yearly spring ritual of my childhood was tramping downstream to find the old bridge and, if it was still intact, carrying it back to where it had originally been placed. Sometimes my dad and I would build dams out of sand and silt, with cinder-block spillways to let the water through. And I still remember with the glee of the child I was then the  year when this entire basin was, briefly, filled with at least a few inches of rushing water. After playing in it for hours, my legs got unbearably itchy from god knows what.

“Holler” is Appalachian for “where appalachians live,” the narrow and steep rolling valleys that made large-scale farming impractical, and which continue to make illegal products like moonshine and marijuana the most viable commercial forms of indigenous agriculture. In the deepest hollers, the sun rises at nine and sets at three. And since the only place to put a house is in the narrow floodplains at the bottom, you can never be lost. You just follow the creek until you’re home.

Being transplanted Appalachians — I was born in Wisconsin and we moved to West Virginia, then just across the river in Ohio, when I was six — my family’s house is placed a hundred feet or so above the holler bottom, where a bulldozer somehow scraped a narrow shelf away from the hillside. Occasionally, streams of water would come down off the hillside and wash away stuff in our front and back yards, but that was all. We never had this sort of thing happen to us:

That was from 2009, the worst flooding since the last really bad flood. But it’s getting pretty regular. This weekend there was the usual thing, where people whose houses are located close to the creek beds watched waves of water stream through their yards, basements, cars:

Randy Toney was on his way to work when his brother called him about rising flood waters. “It came in here so quick that it raised four to five feet in several minutes,” says Toney. He’s lived in the area for 24 years and has never seen anything like what happened Saturday night. “I’ve never seen the creek like this before. I’ve seen the creek get up but nothing like this,” says Toney. Floodwaters also destroyed bridges and damaged several roads that could take several months to repair. “We probably have total somewhere in the 20s and some we have not even got to see the damage,” says Bill Topping of the West Virginia Division of Highways.

Meanwhile, the wall of muddy water damaged the Toney’s freezer, well house and several items, but Randy is taking things in stride. “Material things in life don’t mean anything. They can be replaced,” says Toney.

Just one of those things, right? Flooding has been getting worse and worse in the last decade or so, and as more and more of the dense network of Southern Appalachia’s creeks and streams — that once absorbed excess rainflow — have been transformed into post- mountaintop removal hellscapes, people whose campaign coffers aren’t filled with coal and industry donations have started to question whether there’s a relationship between increasingly regular and destructive flooding and the kind of environmental devastation necessitated by MTR mining:

[Former head of federal mine inspector training, Jack] Spadaro says if you fly over the affected areas, you can clearly see the connection between the flooding and the mountaintop removal. “If you look at any of the areas where the flood is, you can find direct links, such as erosion gullies on the faces of the valley fills, and landslides and debris flows that go all the way down into the valleys below.”

The coalfield counties of West Virginia have been hit by flooding numerous times in the last ten years. May’s floods damaged or destroyed an estimated 3,000 buildings in eleven counties and required the allocation of more than 60 million dollars in government assistance. Governor Joe Manchin, Congressman Nick Rahall and industry spokesmen have all described the flooding as an act of God.

Strangely, God seems to will that the creeks rise a bit more often in areas where this sort of thing:

has been turned into this:

It is hard to overstate how destructive and enormous this practice is, how radically you alter the landscape when you dynamite and blast a hill into rubble and then dump it into the neighboring streambed. This is what it looks like while it’s going on:

Since the Clean Water Act regulated the extent to which it was legal to pollute streams and rivers, the law had to be changed to make it legal to destroy them forever by burying them with entire mountains — in gravel form — but the government agencies in charge of that sort of thing were happy to make the change. Here’s a Washington Post graphic from the a few years ago that gives you a sense of what MTR is, and how it was made legal:

After they’ve flattened the land, they are required by law to “reclaim” the land, but at best, “reclamation” means a micro-layer of just enough top soil to support some sparse grass (see how the rock still peaks through the green above?). And this means that where there once was lush vegetation and crooked streambeds soaking up rainfall, you now have rocky basins that channel it down into the floodplain where people live.

Something like googlemaps will give you a sense for how big these surface mines are, and how radically they reshape the local water table. This image, for example:

shows you the sort of thing going on all over the state of West Virginia (see this pdf for a staggering overlay of mine permits at the state level, and this one at the county level).

For more information, I can send you to I Love Mountains, which has a lot of resources on the issue, and also would suggest you check out the Ohio Valley Environment Coalition, an organization that my mother founded which has been fighting mountaintop removal mining before anyone else was. If you’d care to join or donate, it would make me very happy.

Also, a fabulous documentary on the fight to save the aptly named Coal River Mountain — The Last Mountain — premiered at Sundance, and is hopefully set to come to a flickering-image-type screen near you. Here’s the trailer: