Dec 28, 2011

Lost Mountain

a Year in the Vanishing Wilderness
by Erik Reece

This book has filled me with outrage, sorrow and disbelief. I knew a little bit about the atrocities of strip mining from watching a brief news report on it once, but I had no idea of the extent of the environmental damage and threat to human life, until I read this book. It wasn't one I was intending to read over the holidays, in fact I had to take a break for a few days there because it was making me so incensed. It was the subtitle that caught my eye off the library shelf, and then a bit of perusal inside the cover flap made me realize what the book was about, I felt I ought to read it.

Lost Mountain chronicles the disappearance of one particular mountain in the Appalacian range in Kentucky. The author visited the mountain once a month for a year, hiking up to the summit and wandering around the ridges to see how the mining was changing its landscape. Changing? Removing. Destroying. Annihilating. Strip mining, or mountaintop removal, is when instead of tunneling through the ground, mining companies use large machinery and explosives to blow the mountaintop away, in order to reach coal. Not only does it destroy the habitat, but tons of debris is illegally dumped into streams and valleys and chemicals leach into the groundwater. I didn't know this before, but the Appalachain mountains have one of the most diverse forests in North America in terms of both wildlife and plant life, and are considered our only rainforests. Many of those species are in decline. I kept shaking my head in dismay at the continual blatant disregard for safety or concern for others that these mining companies practice. Blasting too close to human habitation. People's homes getting ruined: foundations cracking, flying rock breaking things, piles of rubble and naked slopes causing floods and mudslides. Children getting sick from respiratory illnesses. People dying of cancer left and right. Overloaded coal trucks driving dangerously fast on narrow roads, killing people. Miners getting paid pittance, families starving, union organizers facing death threats. People who sue for damage to their homes and loss of lives, just getting ignored or threatened or sidestepped because the companies just claim bankruptcy and then open up again under a new name. I could go on and on. It's just disgusting. It had me incensed. I can't believe that in our country a few powerful companies can just go on destroying the landscape and people's lives because they have the muscle of money and power.

Augh! Well, the book itself was a pretty engaging read. It's set up in alternating chapters, between descriptions of Reece's hikes around the mountain and the progressive destruction he observed and chapters about events, health issues, lawsuits, how people in the region live, etc. The chapters are so brief they almost feel like essays, but they are also so intense I don't think I could read it in longer stretches. I appreciated that the author presented both sides- he met and spoke with mining workers and owners alike, and sat in on some town hall meetings where mining employees argued to keep the industry rolling because what would they do without the jobs? It is truly a sad situation. In the end, after the mountain top is gone and Reece can no longer climb to the summit, he files complaints with federal Office of Surface Mining, and visits the mine with inspectors to see if the groundwater is getting contaminated, and sees firsthand how they argue out of every environmental ill.

There were parts I liked. I liked the chapter about the flying squirrels, such marvelous creatures. It was really interesting to read about a re-enactment of Robert Kennedy visiting the community. I liked the inclusion of poetry by Wendell Berry, which I'd never read before. And despite all I thought to the contrary, it even ended on a positive note: restoration of the land. The mining companies are supposed to restore the habitat, but the most they usually do is level the ground when they're done and seed it with grass, creating unnatural pastures up on the flattened mountain plateau. Reece reports that it would actually be easy to plant young trees, which can later be harvested for their wood and would hold back erosion better. It's even cheaper. It just doesn't look good as quick- little trees dotting the broken landscape are less impressive than a wave of green grass I suppose. So it was hard for the mining companies to be convinced that planting tree seedlings was better.

It was hard for me to assess from looking stuff up online if strip mines are actually following the procedures for reforestation. Looking online I found lots of sites that present a positive image of strip mining, with plenty of photos showing lush green forest growing where strip mines had been. But they predated this book so I wonder if some of these atrocities are still continuing.

I had a few small quibbles with the book itself, particularly a handful of typos I came across- break printed for brake, with for will, etc. They jumped right out at me. It's not a big deal, but it always bothers me a little bit to find that.

rating: 4/5 ........ 250 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Tree Hugger
Lake Loop


  1. I think I'd be interested in reading this one. The area I live in was pretty much all strip-mined decades ago. Some of it has been reforested, some of it not so much.

  2. I'm looking forward to reading might just have to go on my 2012 list!

  3. This book would probably upset me too.


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