The Appalachian Mountaintop Patrol
The ATV’s motor struggles against the steep incline of the mining road. Junior Walk, the outreach coordinator for the West Virginia anti-mountaintop removal organization, Coal River Mountain Watch, steers us around a hairpin turn. As we climb, the view of the mountains through the trees abruptly surrenders to a monochromatic valley of rubble.
The ATV carries a payload of camera gear: a quadcopter drone strapped to the front and a GoPro camera affixed to the back. While digging more video cameras from the trunk, I notice an old photo memory-card case. “That might have been from the Vice people, or maybe one of the other journalists who visited,” Junior, who is twenty-five years old, tells me. He jokes that if his job at Coal River Mountain Watch falls through, maybe he’ll start a business taking journalists up the mountain to photograph the devastation.
The Coal River Valley is perpetually flush with journalists and filmmakers intent on capturing a story that is egregiously urgent. Mountaintop removal has unleashed intimately connected environmental and public health crises in West Virginia. The toxic dust that settles on hollows after blasting erases ecosystems and irrevocably contaminates drinking water, yielding unprecedented rates of cancer, birth defects, and miscarriage. Still, the regulations are not enforced. Everyday citizens carry the burden of fighting the mining companies.
Junior is one of seven local environmental activists with whom I am working on an art project, the Appalachian Mountaintop Patrol (AMP), which trains activists to use video and aerial photography to document the effects of mountaintop removal. AMP is producing a series of videos— some chronicle the lack of safe drinking water, while others capture the vast panoramas of destruction hidden in areas inaccessible to the public. Other videos document the biodiversity and natural beauty of the mountains slated for new mining permits and accompanying slow erasure of Appalachian culture, jobs, towns, and people. The story is both complex and very simple: a before and after.
We lie on our bellies and peer over a cliff into an undulating gray ocean of toxic wastewater. This is the Brushy Fork Slurry Impoundment: 7 billion gallons of coal processing byproducts contained behind a 900-foot earthen dam. It’s the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s located directly above Junior’s home.
The drone sounds like a swarm of angry bees, resonating from the bald cliff’s surrounding impoundment. Junior deftly maneuvers the craft down the embankment. We know the images will be breathtaking and that releasing the drone video on the web will inspire denunciations of mountaintop removal from both allies and unwitting viewers across the country. But rather than “extracting the story, just like the coal is extracted from the mountains,” as Junior puts it, AMP videos will also be screened for local people at community meetings. These screening are in hopes of rallying opposition for new permits, encouraging conversations about the future of Appalachian communities and helping people visualize how mountaintop removal alters landscapes and lives.
LAURA CHIPLEY is an Assistant Professor of Media and Communications at SUNY Old Westbury College and a 2015 recipient of an A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art.