Commentary on the Clean Water Protection Act

Larry Bush of Wise County, VA worked first as a coal miner and then as a federal mine inspector. He says there are less destructive ways to mine thin coal seams than so-called mountaintop removal (MTR), ways that would provide more jobs in the southern mountains and still provide the coal companies with generous profits. He also says that because he knows mining law, he has filed numerous complaints on violations, all to no avail.

Coal states have not enacted and/or enforced sufficient legislation to protect citizens from the ravages of MTR. Federal legislators from the coalfields refuse to strengthen laws and reign in the coal operators. Often members of their state delegations defer to their judgment as to what is best for their constituents, as do many legislators in other parts of the nation. That's why I was one of more than one hundred people from 19 states who gathered during the second annual Mountaintop Removal Week May 12-16 in Washington, D.C. As a first step, this year we gained 19 new co-sponsors for the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 2169), urging Congress, "They're blowing up our mountains; there ought to be a law."

Larry Bush and others from Wise County's recently-formed Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS-- website) joined coalfield residents from groups such as WV's Coal River Mountain Watch, TN's Save Our Cumberland Mountains and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. Also traveling to Washington were former coalfield residents and other advocates for the mountains, the environment and social justice.

MTR has destroyed over 2,500 peaks in Southern Appalachia for a small yield of coal. MTR generates less than 5% of the country's electric power, power which could be easily recouped through conservation. MTR has buried over 1,200 miles of headwater streams in toxic rubble, affecting the Southeast's watershed. This "strip-mining on steroids" destroys not only mountains, health and culture; it destroys the potential for the generation of sustainable wind power.

While the Clean Water Protection Act will not eliminate MTR, it will reverse a 2002 Bush administration rule by the Army Corps of Engineers which allows mining waste to be classified as "fill." The Act will thus restore the original intent of the 1977 Clean Water Act, which barred industries from dumping waste into waterways. Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) introduced the measure May 3, 2007 with Christopher Shays (R-CT) and 61 other co-sponsors including Jim Moran (D-VA), Heath Shuler and Brad Miller (D-NC), Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Ben Chandler and Jim Yarmuth (D-KY). John W. Olver (D-MA) added his name on May 10.

Legislators from the coalfields such as Rick Boucher (D-VA)'s call MTR a "hot-button" issue because of the potential loss of jobs. Their position contradicts that of many who maintain that as mining jobs dwindle, especially in the case of MTR, the coal industry is actually blocking alternate economic development. CensusMapper, a joint venture of Stratamodel, Inc. and Techbase International Ltd., reports that while "Appalachian counties produced billions of dollars worth of coal in 2003, " [i] n general, the greater the value of coal produced in an Appalachian county the lower the median household income was" that year.

Environmental and public interest law firms sponsoring the lobby week, included: Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, Appalachian Voices, Coal River Mountain Watch, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, Keeper of the Mountains, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Sierra Club, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, United Mountain Defense, and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

An informational package on MTR and the Clean Water Protection Act can be found at http://www.appvoices.org/index.php?/mtr/cwpa/. The group asks that if your representatives are co-sponsors to please write and thank them; if not, please ask that they so. Then contact your friends throughout the country and ask them to do the same.

Earthjustice also has an action page and invites readers to set up a personal page to recruit support to end MTR. To see a sample and find the link for such your own page, go to http://action.earthjustice.org/stopmtr/advocacy/beth_blog-985957.

Another piece of legislation introduced to strengthen the Clean Water act is the Clean Water Restoration Act of 2007, H.R. 2421. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced the measure and referred it to his committee May 22 with 157 co-sponsors and an additional four as of June 7. The bill would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, replacing "navigable waters" with "waters of the United States" defined as "all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing, to the fullest extent that these waters, or activities affecting these waters, are subject to the legislative power of Congress under the Constitution."

First introduced in 2003, the measure sets out to ameliorate the effects of U.S. Supreme Court rulings which have eroded federal protection offered by the Clean Water Act such as Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States (January 2001) and the consolidated cases of Carabell v. United States and Rapanos v. United States (June 2006), the latter which led to the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers joint guidance issued June 5, 2007.

The measure is supported by environmental and citizens groups such as Riverkeeper, U.S. PIRG, Natural Resources Defense Fund, EarthJustice, National Wildlife Federation, Citizen's Campaign for the Environment, and Sierra Club. The measure is opposed, as usurping local control, by the National Water Resources Associations, a nonprofit federation which includes rural water districts, municipal water entities, commercial companies and individuals, as well as by the National Association of Counties, and by business groups such as the National Corn Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau.