This news story originally provided by Ground Score
by Naomi Sheenan Groce
"What are those mountains good for?" a West Virginia businessman specializing in mine reclamation asked irritably in a recent National Public Radio segment. My heart raged against the car radio as the Appalachian hills, pink with spring, loomed closer and larger over Interstate 64.
There it was, that peculiarly American struggle between love of the land and destruction of it, neatly juxtaposed between my eyes and ears. The story characterized mining as the only industry possible in an area of grinding, congenital poverty. "I really don't see what, you know, mountaintop removal does...it's just rock cliffs," the businessman rambled. "It ain't doin' anybody any good anyway." Indeed, it seemed as though being the oldest and most gracefully beautiful mountains on Earth did not satisfy capitalism's roving eye.
For well over a century, Appalachians living in the Coal Field region of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia have been relieved of the natural resources that surrounded them. Economic and cultural uplifting have long been cited as positive side effects of the coal industry's presence in the mountains. Residents had few options beyond employment in the mines, and mineral rights laws ensured that whatever private property was held in Appalachia did not extend beyond a few feet under the ground. Coal barons swept the earth out from under the mountain way of life. And, not surprisingly, Central Appalachia remains one of the poorest regions of the country, due in large part to exploitation by the hard-lobbying energy industry and complicit abandonment by all levels of government.
The most recent and catastrophic attack on the region is the mining technique known as mountaintop removal, where trees, topsoil, and up to 800 feet of rock are blasted off of ridges and dumped into surrounding valleys, ruining streams, communities, and wildlife habitat. The valuable low-sulphur coal that is extracted is then washed for distribution; water and carcinogenic chemicals used in this process are stored in slurry impoundments as black sludge. Sediment containing mercury, lead, arsenic, and other naturally occurring heavy metals leach out of the coal and end up in the slurries as well. These impoundments can hold billions of gallons of poison, patiently waiting for the next heavy rain to urge it all down the compacted slopes into drinking water supplies and houses below. Ariel photography of all this can clearly illustrate the destruction, but getting a sense of perspective is nearly impossible. Fly-over inspections have revealed that between 15 and 25 percent of West Virginia's mountains have been flattened by surface mining into scars that are visible from space.
The airing of the mountaintop removal story on NPR's widely heard All Things Considered seems to have been intentionally timed to coincide with newly proposed legislation by the Bush administration which would lift a ban preventing mountaintop mining complexes from operating within 100 feet of a stream. A heavily edited Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) issued by the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection estimates that valley fills have already obliterated over 1200 miles of streams. What were they good for?
The World Wildlife Fund classifies as one of The Global 200 Endangered Spaces the rivers and streams of the American Southeast, an ecoregion of roughly 250,000 miles. The water supplying habitat from the Carolinas to Mississippi, Virginia to Florida, has its origins in Appalachian springs and streams. Some of the biggest threats facing the survival of a multitude of birds, reptiles, and aquatic life are the large-scale mining operations that practice clear-cutting and valley-fill methods.
In the tumultuous 1920s, when Socialist principles were galvanizing national unionization, and armed conflicts between workers and Army troops were blocking mine entrances on mountaintops, West Virginia's Coal River was broad and deep enough to transport barges loaded with minerals. Those days seem delusional in their navigability, back when mine owners exhibited defeated flexibility in the form of concessions, back when the general population was unafraid to express resistance to corporate-government oppression, back when rivers flowed free of sediment. Those days seem gone forever. Today, the Coal River is one of the nation's ten most endangered rivers. Over 200 miles of headwaters streams have been buried in the Coal River Watershed, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, leaving a murky, sediment-clotted artery that barely accomodates a canoe. A similar fate has undermined the vigor of organized labor in the mining industry.
Since the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) in 1977, profit margins have exploded, while workers' numbers and rights have declined. In 1977, 65,000 miners extracted 35 million tons of West Virginia coal. In 1998, 18,635 employees - only 3% of the West Virginia workforce - mined 180 million tons of coal. Today, fewer than 15,000 are employed in mining in the state and the tonnage is hauled away at record levels.
One of the more egregious violators of Appalachia and Appalachians is the A.T. Massey Coal Company, a subsidiary of Fluor Industries. The company has expanded under the recent relaxation of environmental standards, business-empathetic tax structure, and disregard of workers' rights typical of the Bush administration. The Charleston Gazette stated with the magnanimity and pride of a corporate-issued proclamation that, "Massey acheived its ability to produce low-cost coal in part by removing the United Mine Workers from some of its operations and successfully fighting unionization at several other mining complexes." Massey currently boasts nineteen mining complexes, fifteen preparation plants processing 19,300 tons of coal an hour, eighteen rail coal loading facilities, and the federal government securely in its pocket.
Fluor, one of the biggest, scariest energy giants the average U.S. citizen has never heard of, has been awarded billions of dollars from the Department of Energy in the form of cleanup contracts, including 2.4 billion for the cleanup of Fluor Fernald, a former uranium processing facility near Cincinnati, Ohio. Fluor-Massey botched a billion dollar cleanup effort with a nasty spill at a Washington plutonium reclamation facility, echoic of the 37 'blackwater' citations at its largest West Virginia slurry impoundment. Is industry trustworthy in cleaning up its own mess, and should they be subsidized with U.S. tax dollars to contain their neglegence and cost-cutting disasters? The answer is no, and if any hesitant ambiguity exists, it serves to reflect that the argument has been tainted with that all too rampant neo-conservative what-is-a-mountain-good-for nihilism. Energy corporations do not make acceptable stewards of our environment, yet the government has consistently entrusted them with its safeguard, without effective EPA oversight or enforcement to comply with the SMCRA or Clean Water Act (CWA).
The SMCRA requires that companies seeking to acquire new mining sites make an effort to 'reclaim' the area afterward, in part through the preservation or replacement of topsoil, preferably making an approximation at the mountain's original contour. However, mining companies can be exempted from compliance if they can show that there will be more industrial or commercial development potential if the area is left flattened. Supplementing this convenient loophole, Kentucky and West Virginia regulators are frequently lax in the issuance of permits for mountaintop removal operations to the extent that companies do not even have to guarantee a suitable site will be left for future development.
Reclaimed mountaintops as success stories do Appalachian ecology and culture serious injustice. Often, the description of a close-knit community living for generations together in a valley is meant to illustrate poverty, ignorance, and the need for outside intervention, invariably in capitalist form. So what is A.T. Massey's idea of mountaintop reclamation success? It enhanced some of those poor, go-nowhere communities it has raped and abandoned by relabeling its largely unchanged wasteland a "state-of-the-art dirt racetrack," such as the 55 acre complex between Logan and Williamson, West Virginia. In Kentucky, where more mountaintop removal sites are active than in any other state, the taxpayer-funded Kentucky Mining Association touts some of the highpoints in reclamation development: five golf courses, five correctional facilities, three industrial scrubber sludge disposal complexes, and six solid waste landfills. Imperialist 'liberation' can happen any place a defenseless populace scratches out a life atop valuable resources.
And then there is surface water contamination, interference with the natural and very delicate balance of water distribution, and blatant violations of the CWA perpetrated by mountaintop removal operations. The EIS suggests combining the SMCRA and the CWA, effectively shifting water protection duties to the Office of Surface Mining and stripping authority from state programs.
Arch Coal, the nation's second largest coal producer, boasts that its mountaintop removal sites have enriched the region by transforming streams and valleys into stagnant marshy areas. Or, as their website puts it, "Arch has created more than 200 acres of new wetlands on its reclaimed lands in Central Appalachia - where wetlands are scarce." Why were they scarce? Because prior to surface mining, watersheds emerging as springs and streams from the Appalachian mountains supplied the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, and other important waterways with their rushing torrents. Water went where it was supposed to go. "With new technology and improving scientific methods," claims Arch, "it's often hard to tell which land has been mined and which hasn't." Granted, the Arch Coal Company is headquartered safely in St. Louis, Missouri, where it is undoubtedly difficult to tell the difference between a mountain one has never laid eyes upon before and after its demolition. The company insists mountaintop mining has no long-term environmental ill-effects beyond the obvious change in appearance.
A 1998 lawsuit filed by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy against the Army Corps of Engineers and the state's Department of Environmental Protection was prompted by public outrage at the issuance of new mining permits despite clear violations of the SMCRA and the CWA. The case was dropped when the federal government agreed to more stringently enforce regulations and to conduct a detailed and critical study of mountaintop removal's environmental effects. Four years later, the 5,000 page EIS was released, co-authored by those agencies called to task in the lawsuit. On page one, the stated purpose is one of evaluating options to improve agency programs under the CWA, SMCRA and the Endangered Species Act so that they "...will contribute to reducing the adverse environmental impacts of mountaintop mining operations and excess spoil valley fills...in Appalachia." But on page two, the covert intent is revealed by way of reference to the U.S. Department of Energy's estimate that 28.5 billion tons of coal remain, and that "[u]nemployment, poverty, and out migration in the study area are well above the national average." After all that study, the EIS determined that West Virginia still has nearly fifty years worth of coal to be mined, and that, despite the clearly detrimental repercussions of mountaintop removal, regulating the industry would be unneccessary. In fact, the focus seems to have taken a hard right turn, veering off toward further simplification of the permit process, giving the Army Corps of Engineers authority to issue general, nationwide mining permits. It also suggests eliminating a current prohibition on valley fills over 250 acres and allowing waste to be dumped directly into streams.
Big business has a big reason to aggressively advocate mountaintop removal practices through misleading press releases and heavy lobbying. More difficult to fathom are the supporters in the Central Appalachian region who, ostensibly, have nothing to gain from the tangible detriment of their environment by large-scale operations. Proponents of surface mining on the local level have their rationale for support, but often it is illusory if well-intentioned. Economic neccessity is most often cited. In the NPR segment, a local businessman defends the energy corporations. "I would like to see mountaintop removal come in here. When they level these mountains out, that opens it up for more industry." Perhaps most people are unaware of the scope of outsourcing, a direct result of our heinous global trade agreements. No matter how much flat land is made available in Appalachia, no matter how cheaply our poverty-stricken labor force is bought, and no matter how much businessmen lust for the company of other businessmen to play golf with them atop former mine sites, industry will not locate in Appalachia. Not when the governments of Burma, Sri Lanka, and Guatamala can accomodate them for less.
As of 2000, over one quarter of Kentucky's workforce was employed in the service industry, most for minimum wage. Almost a third of working West Virginians were serving those more financially fortunate than themselves at hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and other pillars of corporate sprawl. If citizens cling to the mirage of coal jobs for stability, it is because they have been misled by the industry's economic siren song. It is also because industry has not yet found a cost-effective method for moving mountains across an ocean to be mined by women and children. Once the resources are gone - along with the beauty of Appalachia - former employees of mining, tourism, and empty hotels will wish it had all been done differently on the part of federal agencies charged with protecting our environment.
What can we do to get involved? Join the growing organizations devoted to ending mountaintop removal. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition has exhaustive links, commentary, and photography of the devastation online at www.ohvec.org. A watchdog group, www.bushgreenwatch.org, tracks the constant dissolution of environmental laws. In West Virginia, the WV Rivers Coalition at www.wvrivers.org, and WV Highlands Conservancy at www.wvhighlands.org; in Kentucky, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth at www.kftc.org can provide local and state information on protests, action alerts, and pending legislation.
Probably most importantly, reduction in personal energy use can make a big difference. Alternatives to coal and other fossil fuels such as wind, solar, and geothermal options need to be better explored and implemented, with the blessing and support of the U.S. government. Writing to our representatives and urging them to take a long look at the issue is not as crazy as the cynical political climate would lead us to believe. They are, after all, our national social workers, paid to listen to our problems and serve us conscientiously and with ethical clarity. America represents about 6 percent of the world's population, but consumes over 30 percent of its annual nonrenewable energy production. We need to change that while we've got a landscape left, because a natural mountain is good in and of itself.
This news story originally provided by WV Metro News
Roberts Speaks At Massey Meeting