When we decided to go to Cranks Creek, Ky., through the Spring Break in Appalachia program, we had little idea we would literally become rednecks – at least temporarily – after working in the sun on a service project. While many students have returned to the Hilltop with fresh tans, we proudly wear our sunburns as reminders of lessons we learned about the people of Appalachia and the lives they lead.

Appalachian culture is distinctive in a number of ways – it features a strong sense of Southern hospitality, a laid-back lifestyle and, by the way, pride in being a primary source of American coal production. While we greatly enjoyed our time with the people of Kentucky and the natural beauty of the area, our eyes were also opened to some of the atrocities being committed by coal companies operating there.

In the early 20th century, coal companies began surveying the mountains of southeastern Kentucky, where they found some of the most plentiful stores of coal in Appalachia. Communities sprang up in the mountain hollers as mining jobs became plentiful and grew as coal companies built up the infrastructure in these towns. Coal became a way of life; almost all industry was centered around it, and young boys grew up with dreams of becoming miners like their fathers.

Coal was initially extracted from the mountains solely by deep mining. With this method, miners built systems of tunnels into the sides of mountains and physically dug out the coal. Deep mining was dangerous work, presenting hazards like tunnel collapses, rock falls and explosions caused by the buildup of methane gas.

In the 1970s, companies increasingly phased out deep mining operations in favor of surface mining – specifically a method called mountaintop removal, which is heavily used to this day. Workers use high explosives to blast off heavily forested mountain tops, leaving underlying seams of coal exposed. Companies favor mountaintop removal because it is safer than sending men deep into unstable mines and cheaper since it requires less manpower.

Unfortunately, the industrial efficiency of mountaintop removal is environmentally costly. Bulldozers and draglines are used to gather the dislodged rubble, which is subsequently dumped into the nearby valleys that locals call home. This is troublesome for two reasons. Firstly, the dumped waste pollutes and blocks valley streams which are crucial to the survival of wildlife. Perhaps worse, the lack of tree roots on mountaintops leaves the soil loose and bare, rendering it unable to soak up rainfall. As a result, valleys adjacent to these strip sites are heavily prone to flooding and mudslides.

Since 1970, 1,200 miles of valley streams have been covered by waste and more than 400,000 acres of forest have been destroyed. Although federal regulations require companies to replace the green blasted-off mountaintops, many companies skirt the law by planting grass, which does little to reconstitute the soil or repair mountains’ previous majesty. This is one of many such federal statutes intended to regulate the mining industry that suffers from loose wording and lax enforcement.

ountaintop removal hurts the people, too. Unemployment has become rampant as sites where 40 men once worked now require only four. In towns where coal is essentially the sole industry, many people have nowhere else to turn. They are forced to sell their homes in order to feed their families. For those who live off their land, the threat of flood is constant.

What can Georgetown students do to help the people of Appalachia? Under the current form of the Clean Water Act, mountaintop rubble is not defined as waste and can be dumped into valley streams. A new bipartisan bill has recently been reintroduced in the House of Representatives to correct this oversight, and representatives from Appalachia are currently lobbying Congress in its favor. As the premier university in the nation’s capital, Georgetown can make a difference. Write to your congressional representative to let him or her know that you support the revisions to the Clean Water Act. The passage of this legislation will go a long way toward reining in the abusive practices of these coal companies.

If you feel this issue does not affect you, here is a little food for thought: 50 percent of all energy in the United States comes from coal. Every time we plug in our iPods or turn on our laptops, we consume energy that comes largely from the coal industry. It turns out there’s a little bit of redneck in all of us.

Sarah Millan and Jarred Reed are seniors in the College.

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