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Column by Wesley Yonts

Surface mining is a vile practice that has plagued Kentucky for far too long, and now, thanks to the Bush administration’s decision to relax the laws protecting our beautiful landscape from those who wish to pave it flat, strip mining will soon be able to shift i

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nto high gear. This is a tragedy unfolding before our eyes and literally in our backyard.

Coal has been mined in the US since the 1740s, but up until the 1930s, mining was mostly an underground affair. After the 1930s, however, surface mining became a much more widespread method for extracting coal.

Unfortunately, though, surface mining is a horribly destructive practice that usually consists of blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the debris into nearby valleys and hollows. At the end of the 1930s, many states began to enact some of the first laws restricting the coal mining industry (Kentucky was, predictably, not one of these states).

After the breakout of World War II, however, the demand for coal became so enormous that the regulations on coal mining were seldom enforced stringently.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which states coal companies must receive permits to surface mine. In addition, the coal companies would not be allowed to dump the mining debris within 100 feet of a watershed barring certain exceptions. Finally, after they extract the coal, they must return the land to its “approximate original contour,” or AOC, and make sure that “the condition of land after the mining process must be equal to or better than pre-mining conditions.”

Still, many of these regulations are not honored. In fact, the regulations are, more often than not, completely ignored.

UK’s own Erik Reece, an English professor, outlined these problems in his informative and eye-opening essay “Death of a Mountain.” In the essay, Reece describes how it is nearly impossible to restore the AOC of mountains once coal companies have left.

“The reality is that mountains pitched at a grade as steep as the Appalachians cannot be restored,” Reece wrote. “Gravity and topography are working against you.”

Additionally, SMCRA provided to coal companies a provision that they can convert the mined land into residential or commercial development. Unfortunately though, as Reece points out, there are not “nearly enough developers clamoring to fill these barren flats with strip malls or apartment complexes.” So what do the coal companies do? In many cases they “plant grass on an abandoned mine site and call it a pasture or, better yet, a wildlife habitat.”

To heap insult onto injury, the Bush administration has enacted laws making it easier for coal companies to obtain permits to obliterate mountains and allowing companies to dump the waste into nearby watersheds, creeks and streams, many of which provide local residents clean water.

All of this is carried out in an effort to decrease our need for imported oil, an admittedly worthwhile goal. Yet the way things are shaping up, I keep finding it harder and harder to see how the ends justify the means.

Paradoxically, Congress has recently moved to produce legislation to block a wind energy farm off the coast of Nantucket Island because it has the potential to “ruin the aesthetic” value of the millionaire island.

Allow me to define the irony: Congress blocks clean energy production because it would alter the view from Ted Kennedy’s million-dollar home, but passes legislation that cleaves mountains and further destabilizes one of the poorest regions in the US.

Does the current administration’s hypocrisy know bounds? It would appear not.

Wesley Yonts is a journalism and photography sophomore. E-mail [email protected]