Dave and I listened to John Grisham’s Gray Mountain on our first full day of driving to Arizona. The story revolves around a young lawyer Samantha who takes on a new job at a legal aid clinic in Virginia where she deals with cases that have their source in the environmental and health crisis brought about by the coal mining industry. I discovered so much from the novel about coal mining and its impact. Here are just two of the things I learned.
Cancer clusters– A cancer cluster is when there are a greater than expected number of cancer cases among people in a defined geographic area. In the novel Gray Mountain there is a cancer cluster in the Appalachian counties where they are practicing a kind of strip mining called mountaintop removal. I wondered if this was really true and after doing a little searching found this in an Appalachia newspaper…
In 2011, a peer-reviewed study found that cancer rates in counties where mountaintop removal occurs are nearly double the rates in nearby counties with no mountaintop removal. The study concludes that among the 1.2 million Americans living in counties where mountaintop removal occurs, as many as 60,000 additional cases of cancer can be linked to the practice .
Slurry Ponds– Slurry is the waste that is left over once coal has been washed. Coal companies dispose of slurry by damning it in large ponds. There are nearly 600 of these waste ponds in the United States. According to a character in the novel Gray Mountain these ponds are not always well fortified and break. When one slurry pond in Appalachia broke through its barriers it caused ten times more environmental damage than the famed Exxon Valdez spill. Fish and other wildlife died in droves and water supplies were contaminated. I wondered if this was really true and found this in an article in the Washington Post …
In 2000, slurry gushed out of holding pond owned by Massey Energy in Martin County, Kentucky. That accident contaminated the water supply of more than a dozen communities and killed all aquatic life in local waterways.
After we listened to the novel Gray Mountain I found out it didn’t get very good reviews from critics. It may not be a great work of literature but it taught us plenty about coal mining and presented a very convincing case for why it is important to find alternate sources of energy that are less damaging to people and the environment.