Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

 

 

Ken Hechler'sStatementFeb. 27thpublic hearing

In 1971 I introduced a bill to phase out and abolish the strip mining of coal. Within six months, 90 co-sponsors of the bill in Congress, including Senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and George McGovern of South Dakota indicated there was national opposition to the damage to the land and people by this destructive practice.

Harry Caudills trenchant book, Night Comes to the Cumberland first alerted me to the damages to the land and the people by strip mining. The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and other environmental organizations helped mobilize support for abolition. After months of agitation, the House Interior Committee finally agreed to hold hearings, including bills to regulate instead of abolishing the practice.

The subcommittee of Mines and Mining grilled me for many hours in an attempt to undermine my bill. Members on both sides of the aisle stressed that the so-called energy crisis plus the Arab oil embargo made stripmining necessary. My solution to increased deep mining was ridiculed as too dangerous, especially since my authorship of the strict safety standards in the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act were being thwarted by failure of the Nixon administration to enforce these legal requirements.

Under the pressure for regulation, the supporters of my abolition bill declined to 66. I characterized reclamation as putting lipstick on a corpse. I pointed out that many coal companies were spending excessive amounts on showcase reclamation on small acreages which would be uneconomical if attempted for the strip mine projects.

The consideration of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act(SMCRA) evolved into three bills: abolition, regulation and a few mild changes supported by Hechler, Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona and Craig Hosmer of California. Udall, chairman of the Interior Committee, was in a strategic position to argue his regulatory bill was the moderate between extremes.

The blackest day in the consideration of SMCRA was July 22, 1974 when Rep. Teno Roncalio of Wyoming introduced an amendment authorizing mountaintop removal of coal. He contended his bill would create a plateau with no high walls remaining. His bill was praised for authorizing model mines to create flat land for industrial development.

I immediately jumped to my feet to deliver the following impassioned argument:

Mountaintop removal is the most devastating form of mining on steep slopes. Once we scalp off a mountain and the spoil runs down the mountainside and the acid runs into the water supply, there is no way to check it. This is not only esthetically bad as anyone can tell who flies over the State of West Virginia or any place where the mountaintops are scraped off, but also it is devastating to those people who live below the mountain. Some of the worst effects of strip mining in Kentucky, West Virginia, and other mountainous areas result from mountaintop removal. McDowell County in WV, which has mined more coal than any other county in the Nation, is getting ready right now to strip mine off four or five mountaintops. They are displacing families and moving them out of those areas because everybody down slope from where there is mountaintop mining is threatened. I certainly hope that all the compromises that have been accepted by the committee, offered by industry in the committee, that now we do not compromise what little is left of this bill by amendments such as this.

Congressional Record House July 22, 1974 p. 24469

Unfortunately, the Roncalio amendment passed and remained part of the final bill signed by President Carter in 1977.

At the time, I opposed the bill because I contended pressure from the coal industry at both the national and state level would seriously weaken enforcement which is precisely what has happened.

A few temporary victories for the land and the people have been scored as the result of local circuit court decisions but usually reversed by the conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the Friends of Coal have stepped up their financial contributions to executive, legislative and judicial candidates. I remain convinced that abolition is the only solution.
 

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