Honey-coated Rubble

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Mandala Insect Art Series - Honey bee 2852 Artist: Susan Cleaver

Mandala Insect Art Series – Honey bee 2852
Artist: Susan Cleaver

It’s a strange partnership, the one between mining companies and beekeepers in West Virginia. Under mine reclamation programs, the mining companies that dug coal from mountains collaborate with initiatives to re-establish the honeybee populations decimated by pollution, disease, habitat loss and, yes, coal mining operations.

Mention coal mining and the mental image used to be one of dark tunnels, mining carts, countless miners carrying fragile lanterns into deep mountain recesses.

Much of coal mining today, though, happens above ground. Since the 1970s, in particular, massive equipment and small teams start at the top of a mountain and work their way down.

There are a few terms for the top-to-bottom removal process of coal from mountains, but I find most of them to be a bit euphemistic.

‘Surface mining’ makes it sound like the mining just lifts coal from the surface of the earth. ‘Strip mining’ almost sounds like the mining just takes place on narrow tracts of land, or perhaps that the mountains are de-robing and exposing their coal for the taking. I would suggest ‘topographical tampering’, but that sounds both perjorative and playful at the same time.

Before and after at a mountaintop removal site in Mud River, West Virginia. Source: Treehugger/Google Images

Before and after at a mountaintop removal site in Mud River, West Virginia.
Source: Treehugger/Google Images

Perhaps the most apt term is ‘mountaintop removal’, which at least describes part of the process: the actual removal of entire mountains. In the Appalachian region of the United States, over 500 mountains have already been removed. Around the world, thousands.

And ‘removed’ is also a term that can be toyed with, because ‘removal’ implies that the mountains have been taken away, when all that’s really been taken away is the coal.

The remaining mountain material hasn’t been removed so much as ‘reconfigured’. Usually into adjacent valleys or rivers, in a process that is very clearly described in the term ‘valley fill’.

This shuffling around of all non-coal ‘debris’ usually includes the forest itself – trees are rarely even harvested for timber in the rush to mine coal – as well as all the topsoil.

Still from Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining, a video report produced by Yale Environment 360.

Still from Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining, a 2009 video report produced by Yale Environment 360.

Even in the ever-declining areas where the coal seams are close to the surface, the trees and topsoil (not to mention any other resident ecosystems, obviously) have to be…removed.

Another process that resonates with optimism is ‘mine reclamation’, a sunny-sounding term that implies the mountains will reclaim their former shapes and life once the small amount of coal that was within them has been hauled away.

In the United States and many other countries, there are laws that mandate the reclamation of mined land. Mining companies are compelled to set aside a fund for the re-greening of de-topped mountains, but often, government waivers are granted when the time comes to replace the mountain.

In West Virginia, this is where the bees come in.

Maintaining a pollinator corridor on reclaimed mining land is the goal – honey harvesting for out-of-work miners and retired military veterans, honey sales and production for local industry, and support for both struggling pollinators and the plant ecosystems to which they contribute.

Mining advocates hail mine reclamation as mountain building, confident that Humpty Dumpty really can be made whole again.

It seems petty on my part to compare the tiny investments made in reclamation of this kind with the amount of money made by the companies on coal; equally petty to compare the level of reclamation with the damage done, or to imply that projects like this allow mining companies to improve their environmental credentials at little financial cost and no threat to business as usual.

So instead, I’ll say that this sounds like a silver (or golden) lining, a tiny step made forward on tiny wings and pollen-laden feet.

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