An ‘absolutely massive’ environmental catastrophe

HAROLD, Ky. — Along the winding, two-lane road that leads to Tracy Neece’s mountain, there’s no hint of the huge scars in the hills beyond the oaks and the pines.

Green forests cover steep slopes on each side of the road, which turns from blacktop to dusty gravel. Modest homes are nestled into the bottomlands along a creek with gardens that grow corn and zucchini under a hot summer sun.

The first sign of the devastation above is a glimpse of a treeless mesa. 

As Neece navigates his Ford F-150 pickup truck past an abandoned security booth, he drives into a barren expanse. The forest is gone, replaced by grasses. The tops and sides of entire mountains have been blasted away by dynamite.

Tracy Neece gestures to the high walls left behind on his property after a strip mining operation failed to reclaim the site in Floyd County, Kentucky. July 15, 2021

Neece stops at about 1,000 feet above the hollow to look at what is left of his mountain, where a coal mining company walked away and left sheer cliffs, exposed and dangerous, after miners gouged the black bituminous coal from the mountainside with huge earth-moving machines.

Neece bought the mountain in 2012 as an investment in coal, just before the bottom fell out of the Eastern Kentucky coal industry in 2015. His tenant left behind nearly two miles of unstable rock-faced cliffs that Neece estimates are as tall as 250 feet.

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