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Roanoke Students take Alternative Fall Break Trip

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By Shannon Allen

Photo Courtesy of Peter Carrasco
Photo Courtesy of Peter Carrasco

 

On a silent Fall afternoon, several students walk around the Kentucky-Virginia border.  On Black Mountain, the Sugar Maple trees are in peak season for leaf peeping.  The view is grand, and any visitor can see for miles. However, there is an interruption in the beautiful view, right in the middle of all the undisturbed nature; an entire mountain is obliterated.

During Fall Break, instead of heading to the beach for a week of fun or to a mountain cabin for serene relaxation, several students took the opportunity to travel to Harlan, Kentucky to fight the issue of coal mining by mountain top removal. Mountain top removal is the process by which explosives are used to blast away layers of rock to expose coal. Coal is then used to create electricity for almost 40 percent of the United States, but with the innovations in natural gas, that number is dropping. The coal industry has been a major supplier of jobs in the Appalachian Mountains for decades.

The process of mountain top removal also involves the loss of wildlife on the mountain, creating a cascade of other environmental and social issues. Roanoke College is powered by coal.

Black Mountain is unique because it is split across the Virginia/Kentucky border. Laws in Kentucky prevent mountain top removal because Black Mountain is the highest point in Kentucky, while it is free range in Virginia.

Senior Environmental Studies major Peter Carassco explains the raw emotion when looking at the absence of life on the mountain. “I felt confused and sorrowful. How much are we willing to sacrifice just to keep ourselves comfortable? When will we realize we have gone too far…only once it’s too late?”

While in Kentucky, the group completed several service projects including the construction of a mountain bike trail and assembling boxes for a food pantry. Service projects like trails bring in tourists into the area and help to make the area more attractive to other tourist businesses.

Photo Courtesy of Shannon Allen
Photo Courtesy of Shannon Allen

 

Most of Appalachia consists of small towns with ever lowering population. Poverty is also an issue, with a high unemployment rate of 10 percent. Harlan County loses several families each week making the economic situation even worse.

Carassco explains how this type of service is an eye-opening experience, but may only be a Band-Aid on a bigger problem.

“I think it helps alleviate hunger for a short amount of time, but our aid only deals with the symptoms of poverty…it did give us hands on experience and let us see firsthand what the reality of Appalachia is right now.”

That reality is a bleak one, but there are several groups that work endlessly to restore the beauty and tranquility to the area. Groups like Mountain Justice, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and Appalachian Voices are always putting their efforts into rectifying the damage to Appalachia.