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Extras - Commentary: Mountaintop Removal Sites - "Strip Mining on Steroids"

By Beth Wellington, Published on November 22, 2006
Beth Wellington is a Roanoke, Virginia based poet and journalist. She is a contributing editor to the New River Free Press, a book reviewer for the Roanoke Times and a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) and the Appalachian Studies Association. From 1980 to 1997, she was the founding Executive Director of New River Community Sentencing, Inc. in Christiansburg, Virginia and its predecessor, New River Community Action's Community Sentencing Program. She contributes to both SourceWatch.org and Wikipedia.org. Beth's blog on culture and politics is The Writing Corner.

Links to archive of LLRX.com articles by Beth Wellington.

On Monday, October 16, 2006 a group of writers spoke with coalfield residents about their experiences with mountaintop removal (MTR) and thereafter flew over the area to view the devastation. Following is a letter we composed the next morning. Appalachia's Last Stand

An Open Letter to West Virginia Citizens and the Congress of the United States:

On October 17 and 18, sixteen writers gathered in the heart of West Virginia to hear testimony and witness first hand the grievous effects of mountaintop removal. We learned these five devastating facts:

Toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, copper, arsenic, lead, and selenium have been released into the water system which feeds the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. This injures not only local residents but threatens water systems all the way to the Gulf.

Dozens of dams (built from mining refuse to contain the toxic waste from mining and cleaning coal) are in danger of breaking. One holds over 3 billion (3,000,000,000) gallons of toxic sludge just 400 yards from Marsh Fork Elementary School. This sludge dam holds back twenty times as much toxic muck as the one at Buffalo Creek, whose rupture killed 125 people in 1972.

Coal companies have decapitated 474 mountains through the Appalachian region. Almost 1,000,000 acres of mountains have been leveled. West Virginia has lost 500,000 acres.

Every day in WV, three million (3,000,000) pounds of ammonium-nitrate and diesel fuel are used to blow up mountains. This also releases untold quantities of coal and silica dust into the air.

People's homes, property, and businesses have been damaged and destroyed as a direct result of mountaintop removal. In a single 2001 case, 1,500 homes were lost in a flood. The Federal court in Raleigh County, WV, has held the coal, landholding, and timber companies liable for this devastation.

In human terms what does this mean? This is what coal-field natives say:

We do not blame individual miners for struggling to support their families. They, too, are being forced to participate in the demise of their own culture. But this systematic destruction cannot be allowed to continue.

The fight against mountaintop removal will continue in Appalachia, and ultimately the struggle for justice must extend beyond our borders. We call for the end of mountaintop removal, and we call on the United States Congress to take immediate action to save our children, our people, and our mountains.

From Writers who live in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio:

Bob Henry Baber
Adam Brown
Laura Treacy Bentley
Katie Fallon
Diane Gillam Fisher
Denise Giardina
Chris Green
Jeff Mann
Sam L. Martin
Irene McKinney
Rob Merritt
Delilah F. O'Haynes
Edwina Pendarvis
Kathy Pleska
John Van Kirk
Beth Wellington

To learn more see www.ohvec.org, http://webpages.charter.net/crmw, and www.ilovemountains.org.


One of the casualties of the Republican-led House of Representatives was H.R. 2719, the Clean Water Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) on May 26, 2005. Although the bill boasted a bipartisan co-sponsorship with Rep. Christopher Shays, (R-CT) and gained 74 additional co-sponsors, it never made it out of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Committee's Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. This is the third time such legislation has been submitted. Pallone introduced the measure as H.R. 4683 on 5/8/2002 (gaining 36 co-sponsors) and as H.R. 738 on 2//2003, (gaining 64 co-sponsors).

As the Appalachian Voices campaign hosted by Democracy in Action explains:

"Since 1977, The Clean Water Act has barred industries from dumping waste into waterways. In 2002, the current Administration made a rule change which redefined "waste" in order to exclude mining waste. Since debris from mountaintop removal is no longer classified as "waste", coal companies are dumping millions of tons of mine waste into nearby streams. As its designers intended, this has greatly facilitated the practice of mountaintop removal. The Clean Water Protection Act reestablishes the original intent of the Clean Water Act: to protect our waterways, not give industry permission to pollute and bury them."

On the eve of the general election November 6, 2006, Tom Searls of the Charleston Gazette reported that Democrats were ending their campaign in Marmet, WV, where coal miners gathered 85 years ago to march against coal operators at Blair Mountain.

You may remember the ensuing Battle of Blair Mountain from the 1987 John Sayles film, Matewan, or the 1987 Denise Giardina novel Storming Heaven, or the 2004 Diane Gilliam Fisher poetry collection Kettle Bottom. I hadn't realized that the number of UMWA workers shrunk from 50,000 to 600 after the battle, or that the army had enthusiastically sent 17 planes to strafe American citizens until I read an old article, Roanoke proudly plays a bit role in the battle, in part of a series by Tim Thorton commemorating the 85th anniversary of the battle this year in The Roanoke Times.

Marmet was a fitting location for the rally, given that Don Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey Energy Co., the state's largest coal producer, had spent more than $2 million of his own money, independent of 30 GOP candidates for the state delegate, hoping to defeat incumbent Democrats. My information comes from a November 8, 2006 AP story, Blankenship effort for GOP largely fails. This type of limitless spending is allowed under campaign finance laws [reference: the infamous Republican National Campaign Committee ad against Harold Ford, Jr., in his unsuccessful race for Bill Frist's seat].

Blankenship's independent spending dwarfed the roughly $265,000 in $1,000-or-less contributions that he and his Massey employees, suppliers and families members had donated directly to the candidates, as allowed under the law.

New York Times writer Ian Urbina wrote on October 22, 2006 in Wealthy Coal Executive Hopes to Turn Democratic West Virginia Republican, "In a state where candidates who win typically spend less than $20,000, Mr. Blankenship has poured more than $6 million into political initiatives and local races over the past three years."

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Blankenship is one of the key proponents of mountaintop removal (MTR). Last month, when I participated in the flyover I viewed some of his MTR sites south of Charleston, West Virginia from the air. I'd call the term MTR a misnomer - "mountain range removal" would be a more accurate phrase.

MTR denudes mountains of trees and topsoil and injects fertilizer and diesel fuel [the explosive mixture used in the Oklahoma City bombing], to blast away layer after layer of rock, which it dumps into valleys, permanently burying streams. And yet the industry prefers the term "mountaintop mining."

MTR started in southern Appalachia in the late 1980s. By 1999, court rulings had slowed the coal industry's use of the method, but in May 2002, federal officials reclassified the debris from "waste" to "fill." A "clarification" of the Clean Water Act voided a two-decade-old ban on mining within 100 feet of a stream. Another proposal scaled back the federal government's legal obligation to police state mining agencies, by reclassifying certain duties from "nondiscretionary" to "discretionary."

West Virginian politicians, local and national, have allowed coal companies to continue to destroy mountains to claim their coal. One has to wonder, given the level of his campaign contributions, what else Blankenship wants. But according to Open Secrets.org, the coal industry as a whole has always favored Republicans. From 1990 to 2006, of the industry's $13,899,060 contributions, almost half from individuals, 81% went to the GOP, with a high of 90% in the 2004 election.

As West Virginia attorney Joe Lovett, who heads the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment told Elizabeth Shogun for her January 18, 2004 Los Angeles Times article, Damage in Appalachia Trickles From Top: "The Bush administration is on a tear to destroy our region, There is nothing the coal industry can't get from the Bush administration."

Judy Bonds, an organizer for Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental group in Whiteville, WV told Shogun, "We find legitimate ways to fight this destructive type of mining, we present our case to the courts, and in the meantime the Bush administration goes behind our backs and changes these laws…It shows contempt for the people who live in these communities and don't want their lives destroyed by the coal industry."

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The rally at Marmet underscored an irony. Coal companies would like to obliterate Spruce Run, the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain, using MTR. In May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Blair Mountain one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the nation because:

"Over the years, various local efforts to preserve the battle site have been blocked by the coal companies that own or lease the property where the conflict occurred. Now coal companies…would completely obliterate the well-preserved and intact site...

"Past preservation efforts have failed because of fierce opposition from the coal companies that own or lease most of the ridge. Hobet Mining, Arch Coal, Massey Energy Company and Aracoma Coal Company, among others, are intent on strip-mining, which would destroy the battlefield. Permits for strip-mining are issued through the Army Corps of Engineers, which is subject to a federal preservation review process that provides for consideration of - but not necessarily protection of - historic sites."

What the Trust calls strip mining is more like "strip mining on steroids" according to Philip Mattera (bio, email), director of the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First, in his July 2001 essay Black Sludge and Blackouts: The Coal Industry Takes Center Stage.

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Mountain range removal's threat to the ecosystem and the economy was listed as one of the top ten censored stories of 2006 by Sonoma University's Project Censored. The judges singled out for recognition, See You in the Mountains: Katuah Earth First! Confronts Mountaintop Removal by John Connor in the November - December 2004 issue of Earthfirst! Journal.

Actually, in addition to Shogun, The Washington Post staff writer Jody Warrick had written extensively about the practice in the front-page story Appalachia Is Paying Price for White House Rule Change, which ran on August 17, 2004. This was the last of a three-part series on President Bush's weakening of regulations protecting workers and the environment. Warrick wrote that the 2002 rule change allowing debris as "fill" is "a case study of how the Bush administration has attempted to reshape environmental policy in the face of fierce opposition from environmentalists, citizens groups and political opponents. Rather than proposing broad changes or drafting new legislation, administration officials often have taken existing regulations and made subtle tweaks that carry large consequences."

In her story, Shogun also wrote about the October 2001 change in focus of a federal mining study that was poised to recommend limits on the size of new mountaintop mines and a 2004 internal policy change that allows ditches dug by coal companies to serve as substitutes for streams that were being buried by debris. She quotes Jack Spadaro, who served for 32 years as a federal mine inspector and mining safety administrator, before being locked out of his office on orders of Elaine Chao, Bush's Secretary of Labor and the wife of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

"They call them 'clarifications,' but it's really all about removing obstacles….They've made it easier for companies to dump mining waste into streams, and harder for citizens to challenge them."
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The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977 was supposed to establish "a nationwide program to protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations; assure that surface mining operations are not conducted where reclamation is not feasible and are conducted so as to protect the environment; assure that adequate procedures are undertaken to reclaim surface areas as contemporaneously as possible with the surface coal mining operations."

The law came about because of mounting opposition to conventional strip mining which started in the 1940s. Opponents were divided into two camps, the abolitionists and the regulators. Fights against strip mining were so much in the media by the late sixties and early seventies that the Pulitzer prize for public service was awarded in 1967 to The Louisville Courier-Journal, "for its successful campaign to control the Kentucky strip mining industry, a notable advance in the national effort for the conservation of natural resources,"
and in 1971 to the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, "for coverage of environmental problems, as exemplified by a successful campaign to block strip mining operation that would have caused irreparable damage to the hill country of northwest North Carolina."

There is an excellent chapter on the history of strip mining from The West Virginia Endowment for the Humanities funded history of environmental problems in the state. The authors are Dianne Bady, founder of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Dr. Rick Bady (email), Professor of Physics and Applied Science at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

Morris Udall, then Chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, was the chief proponent of the 1977 act. You can review the legislative history here. In 1995, Robert J. Uram, Director of the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said:
"More than any other figure in recent history, Mo Udall had the vision to see that a national law could motivate industry and government together to make good land reclamation an integral part of the coal mining process.

"Morris Udall used the moral authority and legislative power of his position…to bring that vision to reality, not only through passage of the surface mining law, but also by holding the line against subsequent attempts to weaken the law. It is safe to say that without Mo Udall, there wouldn't be a surface mine reclamation program as we know it today."

Unfortunately, Nick Rahall, (D-WV), persuaded Udall to allow mountaintop mining as a result of another small wording change. Coal companies were allowed to leave mountains flattened, if the land was to be used for economic development. This was supposed to be a small exception to the rule of returning hills to their original contours; however, the over 474 mountains destroyed by mountain top removal mining dwarf the number of actual economic development sites.

The mining industry argues that the practice preserves jobs and lowers the price of domestic coal production. But even streams that have not been buried under the shattered mountains carry high levels of silt and toxic chemicals. The popular mountain vistas can never be replaced.

Before the federal district court judge reached a decision in Bragg v. Robertson, the EPA agreed to issue an environmental impact statement. The agency published the "Intent To Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement To Consider Policies, Guidance, and Processes to Minimize the Environmental Impacts of Mountaintop Mining and Valley Fills in the Appalachian Coalfields," [Federal Register, February 5, 1999]. The purpose was to "...minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, the adverse environmental effects to waters of the United States and to fish and wildlife resources from mountaintop [removal] mining operations, and to environmental resources that could be affected by the size and location of fill material in valley fill sites."

In Leveling a Mountain of Research on Mountaintop Removal Strip Mining, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that: "...senior Bush administration officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior intentionally disregarded extensive scientific studies conducted by five separate federal and state agencies over four years in preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS)..."

For instance: "...government documents and UCS interviews confirm that J. Stephen Griles, [now at Lundquist, Nethercutt & Griles] deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior and a former lobbyist for the National Mining Association, instructed agency scientists and staff to change the focus of the EIS. A memo from Griles to the White House Council on Environmental Quality and other federal agencies involved in the EIS states that a new draft EIS should "focus on centralizing and streamlining coal-mining permitting."

(Griles came to Interior in 2001 as a principal National Environmental Strategies and as President of J. Steven Griles & Associates LLC.)

The Trial Lawyers for Public Justice Environmental Enforcement Project maintains an online briefs and documents library on various suits on behalf of land owners and environmental groups trying to curb the practice of mountaintop removal.

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A July, 2004 poll from Lake Snell Perry & Associates commissioned by the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment found that opponents of mountaintop removal outnumber supporters at least 2 to 1.

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Even those who loathe MTR sometimes argue that coal provides jobs and needed energy to replace imported oil. Kristin Johannsen's (email, bio) essay, Dirty Money -- The Economy of Coal rebuts the argument that coal provides jobs. She took part in the Kentucky Mountaintop Removal Writers' Tour sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. The tour inspired the one that I took in October and resulted in the book Missing Mountains, published by my friends at Wind Publications, in 2005. The essay appeared in that book. Johannsen writes,

"Coal, we are often told, is essential to Kentucky's economy. Interfere with the coal industry, and you eliminate jobs, destroy communities, and take food out of little kids' mouths. If the future of coal mining is in mountaintop removal, then restrictions on this process will doom countless Eastern Kentuckians to unemployment and a dismal standard of living.

"That's what the coal industry would very much like us to believe. But a firsthand look shows a very different picture."

She explains,

"Countless Kentuckians have family ties to coal, with grandfathers and uncles and cousins and parents who worked in mining. For many people's forebears, a steady job in the mines meant a leg up in the world, advantages for their children and grandchildren that they themselves never had.

"But these personal ties are becoming ever weaker and more distant. Over the decades, increased efficiency in mining methods means that more and more coal is produced by fewer and fewer people. In 1979, there were 35,902 mining jobs in Eastern Kentucky. By 2003, there were only 13,036. For every three people who once worked the mines, two are now doing something else."

She adds that coal producing counties lag economically behind those with a more diversified economy.

As for the necessity of using coal, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) maintains a good blog on alternative energy and published an interesting book in 2004, Winning the Oil Endgame, available free for download.

Here is the summary of its strategy from the abstract: "Our strategy integrates four technological ways to displace oil: using oil twice as efficiently, then substituting biofuels, saved natural gas, and, optionally, hydrogen. Fully applying today's best efficiency technologies in a doubled-GDP 2025 economy would save half the projected U.S. oil use at half its forecast cost per barrel. Non-oil substitutes for the remaining consumption would also cost less than oil.

There is an extensive section in the book on substituting biofuels and biomaterials for oil. The book advocates companies moving on to new fuel and technology rather than continuing the status quo and increasing global warming. RMI's founder has also debunked the arguments offered by Patrick Moore that nuclear energy is the answer.

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Many members of Congress from Appalachia have failed to oppose MTR; they have even supported it citing jobs and energy needs. Those of us in the region need help on a national scale if we are to protect the remaining mountains.

MTR opponents have gained a national audience of late with the March issue of National Geographic, the May issue of Vanity Fair (photos) and the July issue of O Magazine. Bill Moyers also featured growing opposition by Christian evangelicals in "Is God Green?"

This national audience will need to pressure even a Democratic Party-controlled Congress, or coal mining, as it is being practiced, will leave unrecoverable destruction in its wake. The monopoly ownership of coal companies has prevented alternative economic development in the region. People should not be forced to move or to hang on to the dwindling number of relatively high-paying mining jobs as the mountains are obliterated all around them.

How ironic is this "Bible Almanac" column, "Mountains" by a Johnson City minister, not that far from the MTR sites in Tennessee?

"If anything will stand the test of time, surely it will be the mountains. That idea can be found in Psalm 125:1: "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.

"Think about it: If an earthquake were to hit our area, many things would destroyed. But not the mountains! In the same way, if we put our faith in God, the earthquakes of life may come, but we will stand secure, just like the mountains."

Those of us who love the mountains and its people can only hope the mountains will again abide secure.