Digging for Coal in a Cupcake (Archive)
Originally posted February 7, 2018.
Ellison Heil is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s in Environmental Horticulture in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. He aspires to utilize his degree from the University of Washington to implement Ecological Restoration in Appalachian landscapes in order to renew and restore ecosystems that have been damaged and destroyed.
On a beautiful misty mountain morning in central West Virginia, a group of elementary school students huddle around a tray of cupcakes, their eyes grow as big as the green icing smeared smooth atop the sweet vanilla cakes. Their teacher has agreed to facilitate lessons on the history and importance of coal in Appalachia as part of the Coal in the Classroom program funded by Friends of Coal. Friends of Coal is a long-standing industrial lobby group that has intentions to safeguard coal company profits. As the students wait in restless anticipation, they receive cut straws, called ‘drilling rigs,’ and are told to locate and extract the precious coal from the center of the cupcake. Throughout the classroom, kids begin repeatedly stabbing their cakes and launching the removed sugary cylinders like blow-darts at their friends across the room. The teacher attempts to quiet the class and continue with her lesson plans as the sugar-charged children run about grinning with green icing stained teeth.
The reality is that coal does not come from traditional shaft mines. Instead, modern surface mining techniques are used to collect the fossil fuel resource. Thus, to best simulate reality, the cupcake core drilling lesson would provide students with firecrackers, Tonka trucks and instructions to remove the top half of the cupcake and extract the chocolate ‘coal’ center. Furthermore, once the chocolate is removed, it is mandated that the cupcake is put back together as students are graded based how closely their cupcake resembles what was given to them at the start of the lesson. Ultimately, the students will struggle to put back together their fluffy icing topped cupcakes and will end up pressing all the dough together to make a compact ball of sorts. Students can roll around this ball on what’s left of their icing to make the dough a green color, but the thick smear of creamy frosting initially found on the cupcake is certainly long gone.
The ‘Digging for Coal in a Cupcake’ analogy expands on the one of the most environmentally destructive processes occurring on Earth, Mountaintop Removal. For this analogy perceive a cupcake as our mountain, the green icing as our dense forests, the chocolate center as energy-rich coal veins, and any attempt to recreate the original cupcake as reclamation. Mountaintop Removal strips the mountain (cupcake) of its vegetation (icing) and uses explosives (firecrackers) and large machinery (Tonka trucks) to loosen and scrape away all of the overburden (top half of the cupcake) to provide access to the coal veins (chocolate center). Under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 coal companies are mandated to return abandoned mining sites to their original form (teacher grading the recreated cupcake). The problem is that ecologically, after all of the coal has been extracted the mountain’s soil is compressed (compact ball) and its extremely difficult to get large trees (thick icing) to reestablish on the mining site. Therefore, it is common to find that reclaimed mining sites have not transitioned back to the old-growth forests that we once knew, but instead are dominated by grass (rolling the compact dough ball on icing the make it look green).
Cupcake Core Drilling Lesson is adapted from Coal in the Classroom developed by Friends of Coal available at: http://www.friendsofcoalladies.com/coalintheclassroom