Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Does mountaintop removal cause earthquakes?

   Three days ago at 12:08 p.m. an earthquake centered in the town of Blackey that measured 4.3 on the Richter Scale “rattled southeastern Kentucky” -- this from an AP report published in the Huffington Post on Nov. 10, 2012. The Post reported that according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quake was a “shallow” one, at a depth of only seven-tenths of a mile, or 3700 feet below the surface. Blackey, in Letcher County, may have gotten its name from nearby Black Mountain, or possibly from the blackness of the coal seams in its mountains. The Wikipedia reports that it was named after Blackey Brown, one of its early inhabitants, but the locals think the name comes from the coal that has been mined all around for nearly a century, first underground, then with strip mining, and lately by means of mountaintop removal (MTR). With its blasting and earth removal, coal mining obviously disturbs the earth. Could mining have caused this earthquake?

   On hearing that the earthquake was centered in Blackey, I immediately got in touch with Elwood and Kathy Cornett, friends of mine who live only a couple of miles from the center of Blackey, to see if they were all right. Elwood told me that they had survived just fine, and that it didn’t seem like their house had any damage, even though the exact center of the quake was one mile from their home. Theirs is a home that I have visited many times. I have been “kept overnight” there, as they say. And Elwood and Kathy have visited me twice where I live in Maine. Elwood is the elected moderator, or head, of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists. I first got to know Elwood and Kathy (his wife) when visiting with the Old Regulars every weekend in 1990 when teaching as a visiting professor of Appalachian studies, at Berea College in Kentucky. Since then I’ve been back to visit many times and collaborated with them on several projects to help them sustain their music, some of which I’ve mentioned in passing in this blog.

   Ironically, on October 25 at a conference in New Orleans I presented a paper whose main point was that when we think about helping communities to sustain their traditional arts, we need to bear in mind economic and environmental threats as well as cultural ones. In that presentation I mentioned the threat presented by MTR, which levels the mountaintops, extracts the coal, and dumps the toxic waste into the stream beds and hollows below, where it poisons the water and sickens the people. Not only does MTR endanger the people but it engineers an ecological catastrophe in the natural world of the Appalachian mountains. If anyone had asked me how those catastrophic threats to the nature of Appalachia were made manifest, the first thing I’d have mentioned was flooding resulting from deforestation. If they had asked further, I would have talked about ecosystem disturbance and the extinction of species. I did not have earthquakes in mind then. I do now.

   Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, my blog entry from one week ago was all about this--how cultural sustainability must take into account economic and environmental threats. Take a look, if you will. I would like to think that four days later it was as if the earth trembled in response. (I speak metaphorically, of course: “as if.”) In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether the quake was caused by mining, or something else: the quake shows that the Old Regular Baptists, the community that keeps alive the oldest English-language religious singing tradition in the United States, are vulnerable not only to cultural threats but to catastrophic environmental ones.

   But was MTR the cause? I hesitate to bring MTR up again with Elwood and Kathy and the others, but I will do so. Several years ago, when MTR first came into their region,  I had asked them how they felt about MTR. Elwood, who is a very kind, wise and effective leader in his community, understood that as an outsider, a university professor, and someone who acted on his beliefs in cultural equity and in the Environmental Movement, I would have been mightily opposed to MTR—I did not have to tell him so. In fact, just before mentioning MTR I had asked Elwood about the nearby Lilley Cornett Woods, the largest remaining old-growth forest in Kentucky, and whether he was related to the man after whom it was named, a World War I veteran who kept his land intact by refusing to sell the property rights to the timber and mining companies. He was related, distantly--all the Cornetts in the area, after all, are related somehow. Anticipating my opinion, when I finally got around to asking how he and Kathy felt about MTR, he said something like this to me: “You know, you have to bear in mind that our people have depended for their living on coal mining in this area for nearly 100 years.” That told me a lot. But I want to talk with them about it further now.

   The Blackey earthquake was widely reported in the Press, mostly from various AP bulletins. Here is one: the Alpena (Michigan) News reported on Nov. 12 that nearby residents were shaken up: “Blackey Public Library . . . worker Bonnie Asher said she was coming downstairs when she heard a big boom. Asher said the entire building shook and the lights flickered off and on, and at first she thought maybe a plane had crashed nearby. 'It was very scary,’ she said. ‘It knocked about 14 books off one shelf.’” I would like to know which ones they were.

  Was MTR the cause? It is generally accepted that underground coal mining has caused some earthquakes. Common sense would suggest it does cause them, as mining undermines (to speak in a 'dead metaphor') the structural integrity of the earth. What about the earthquake in Blackey? And does MTR have the same effect as underground mining? The Associated Press reported the following on Nov. 12 (this is from the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader):

Zhenming Wang
“Geologists say the 4.3 magnitude earthquake that shook eastern Kentucky over the weekend was too deep to be induced by the region's underground mining activity. The epicenter was . . . in the heart of Kentucky's coal country, where underground mining and surface blasting are common. The head of the University of Kentucky's Geologic Hazards Section, though, says Saturday's quake occurred about 12 miles below the surface, far too deep for underground mining to have been a factor. Zhenming Wang says it came near the Eastern Tennessee Seismic Zone. That area receives a 4-magnitude quake every five to 10 years. [Wang] says mining and hydraulic fracturing used by the natural gas industry can possibly be a contributor to earthquakes but not in this case.”

   Twelve miles below the surface? That is what Adjunct Professor of Geology Wang said, but the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that the quake was only 0.7 miles below the surface. Who is right? Both conclusions were separately and widely reported but I've seen no report in which they were put in contrast with each other. And how far below the top of the mountains in Letcher County is seven-tenths of a mile? If we ask how high is the highest mountain near Blackey, the highest in the county is Black Mountain, with an elevation of 3,700 feet. Blackey itself is at an elevation of 1,000 feet, five-tenths or half a mile below that peak. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, then, the quake itself must have occurred at sea level.

   The mountaintop removals at Oven Fork, about 15 miles as the crow flies from Blackey, are pictured below. The evidence is circumstantial, to be sure. But common sense tells me that when mountaintops are dynamited and otherwise blasted to smithereens, the earth below is going to be “some disturbed,” as my friends in the state of Maine would say. Look at the picture and ask yourself if it’s related to the earthquake. Talking about music, ethnomusicologist Dave McAllester, then the last living founder of the Society for Ethnomusicology, repeated as a refrain in his last public speech, in 2005, “It’s all connected.” Indeed.
Mountaintop Removal, Oven Fork, KY, 15 miles from Blackey

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