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In coal country, heat rises over latest method of mining

Monday's explosion has focused attention on mine safety, but environmentalists worry about long-term effects of 'mountaintop removal.'

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When Maria Gunnoe looks over her 40-acre farm in southern West Virginia, she finds it hard to believe it's the same place that, growing up, she considered her "own little private heaven."

Seven floods in five years have washed out most of her yard, filled her barn with debris, and destroyed parts of her bridge. The stream where she used to swim and catch bait is now a pollution discharge system. The well water is now so toxic that bathing in it has caused problems.

"It's hard to absorb everything that's happened in the last seven years," Ms. Gunnoe says, looking at a photo of the farm in happier days, before the fruit trees fell victim to pollution and flooding and the surrounding horizon was forever altered.

In Gunnoe's opinion, there's one culprit: mountaintop removal mining.

It's a method of extracting coal that has become more common among the steep slopes of southern West Virginia and parts of Kentucky. It's the most efficient way to get the coal - an important energy source - and an economic boon for a struggling state, proponents say. But the practice, which involves blowing off the top of a mountain to reach the rich coal seams beneath, exacts a toll on the environment and the quality of life that some here, like Gunnoe, are increasingly unwilling to pay.

Here in Boone County, one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest states, residents are bringing lawsuits and launching local campaigns to save their piece of Appalachia. "The worst thing I can do at this point is sit back and keep my mouth shut," says Gunnoe, now an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Mountaintop mining began in the 1970s, on a tiny scale. It increased significantly in the past decade, now accounting for about 95 percent of surface mining in southern West Virginia and between one-quarter and one-third of all coal mining in Appalachia.

"There are about 28-1/2 billion tons of coal in this area," says Bradford Frisby, associate general counsel for the National Mining Association, an industry group. "Mountaintop mining is definitely the most efficient means of removing the coal, and in a lot of these areas it's really the only way you can mine these particular coal seams."

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