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‘Ecosexuals’ Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle explore mountaintop mining in new film ‘Goodbye Gauley Mountain’

Ansted is a town in Fayette County, W.Va., with a population of 1,404. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons glide over the region’s hardwood forests. Farmland and natural springs provide food and water to the area communities. The New and Gauley rivers converge at the head of the New River Gorge, creating a natural watershed for the region. Until the mid-20th century, Ansted was a bustling coal camp. The camp was populated by workers from around the world, eager to make a better wage sourcing the nation’s new fuel supply. At that time West Virginia was responsible for producing two-thirds of the nation’s coal supply and had attracted hundreds of thousands of immigrants to work in its coal mines. In 1950, the coal company in Ansted closed. In the years that followed, tourism became the new industry.

By the 1970s, a less expensive and less labor-intensive process of coal mining began, mountaintop removal mining, or MTR. It began in Appalachia as an extension of conventional strip-mining techniques. The richest producers of coal were targeted: Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. Mountaintop removal mining is a form of surface mining that involves the mining of the summit of a mountain. Coal is extracted from a mountain by removing the land above the coal seams. The traditional coal acquisition of underground mining suffered due to high labor costs. With MTR, more than two and a half times as much coal can be extracted per worker per hour than in traditional under-ground mines. As a result of MTR mining methods, the industry lost 10,000 jobs between 1990 and 1997. Today, MTR is the predominant method of coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains. Along with lost jobs is the health impact on the region. Rock and soil laden with toxic mining byproducts are dumped into nearby valleys. The impact is adverse health impacts that result from contact with affected streams or exposure to airborne toxins and dust. In regions where MTM takes place, there are 50 percent higher cancer rates, 42 percent higher birth defect rates, and billions of dollars spent on public health costs from pollution.

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