Commentator Jeff Biggers
Commentator Jeff Biggers - 
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Tess Vigeland: Officials in Utah said yesterday that they would continue searching for the six men trapped in that collapsed mine.They've sent a special robot camera down a hole to see if there's any sign of life.

Meanwhile, last Friday, the Bush Administration introduced one of the most far-reaching changes in coal mining policy in the last decade. It would loosen the requirement that coal operators prove their strip mining doesn't damage streams and wildlife.

The public has 90 days to file comments. Here's one already from commentator Jeff Biggers.

Jeff Biggers: In the summer of 1983, I first hiked along the famed Appalachian Trail and worked on mountain farms. Then, I was taken into the West Virginia coal fields and saw something else.

In one depressed coal-mining community after another, strip mining had devastated the ridges. Twenty-five years later, the most extreme form of strip mining, mountaintop removal, has become an economic boondoggle for Appalachia.

Once bustling communities in the coal fields have become ghost towns. Blasting, coal hauling and unsafe roads have damaged, flooded out and made unlivable countless numbers of communities. Huge dragline machines that scoop away the mountains have shrunk coal-field employment by 90 percent.

Tourism might soon be the worst casualty. Tourism brings in some $30 billion a year in a dozen states in Southern Appalachia, more than any other industry including coal. In West Virginia alone, in fact, tourism rivals coal. Both account for $3.5 billion of revenue each year.

But not for long. The dull haze of coal pollution has slashed visibility along the Appalachian Trail, and as far as the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina.

The coal industry uses one million metric tons of explosives a year to blow up the mountains in this region. This explosive force, equal to 58 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, has wiped out more than one million acres of forests, 1,000 miles of streams and 475 actual mountains.

Strip mining has left behind a new Appalachian Trail of destruction. If mountaintop removal becomes the poster image of tourism, Appalachia's economy and its ridges will one day look like the dusty prairies of Crawford, Texas.

Vigeland: Jeff Biggers is the author of "The United States of Appalachia."