Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

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This news story originally provided by The Lexington Herald-Leader

May 1, 2005

Rape of the Earth

Decapitated mountains: monuments to nation's wasteful fuel consumption

Thanks to Erik Reece, Silas House and other Kentucky writers for rekindling public outrage at coal industry abuses.

Public outrage produced the first federal law on strip mining in 1977.

Sadly, that environmental landmark was quickly twisted into a loophole that has allowed the wholesale flattening of mountains and ruin of water.

Mining will destroy 2,187 square miles of Appalachian forest, according to a 2002 draft federal study.

In the 1977 law, mountaintop removal -- or "radical strip mining," as Reece calls it -- was intended as a rarity, allowed only when there were definite plans, such as a factory or airport, for the denuded flat land left when the coal was gone. (Former Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D- W.Va., claim credit for writing mountaintop removal into federal law.)

Instead, this highly destructive form of mining became the norm, with no regard for the requirement that the stripped land be put to use to help people and the region's economy.

The Reagan and first Bush administrations aided mountaintop removal by ignoring clean-water laws and bureaucratically transforming pulverized mountains into government-approved fill to be dumped across watersheds.

By the late Clinton years, the Environmental Protection Agency and Fish and Wildlife Service were trying to rein in the worst abuses and bring the industry and regulators into compliance with federal law. So was Charles Haden, the late U.S. district judge.

With the arrival of this President Bush, the priority switched to speeding up mountaintop removal permits.

On the writers' Earth Week tour, they saw how radical strip-mining, with its teeth-rattling dynamiting and 24-7 earth-moving, has become so widespread that people are threatened in their homes. They heard how the extreme makeover of the landscape has worsened flooding and broken hearts.

Even motorists on major highways are endangered by the coal trucks that careen off mountaintop mines, so overloaded that drivers struggle to keep the huge rigs under control. Kentucky carved out the loophole for overweight coal trucks.

All this might be tolerable if coal brought prosperity to the places where it's mined. But it does not.

Of 27 Eastern Kentucky coal counties, 23 are among Appalachia's most depressed, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. None are considered economically competitive on national gauges of unemployment, income and poverty. Four counties -- Boyd, Greenup, Laurel and Pike -- are considered "transitional" because they're sub-par on only one or two of the measures.

Since 1980, coal-mining jobs in Kentucky have plummeted from 47,182 to 14,700. The decline in demand for Western Kentucky's high-sulfur coal is one factor in this decline. More of a factor is mountaintop removal, which replaces workers with machines.

Coal and poverty go hand in hand.

Yet the writers on their coalfield tour could have found plenty of civic-minded, middle-class Kentuckians who are proud to work in the coal industry and proud of the engineering feats needed to lay a mountain low. They see their work as keeping America's lights, heat, computers and assembly lines running. Coal provides more than half of the nation's electricity.

So the plundering of Appalachia is also a monument to a wasteful energy policy and a people who are hooked on high-polluting, climate-changing, non-renewable fuels.

Jimmy Carter, the president who signed the first strip-mine law, called energy conservation the moral equivalent of war. If we had taken heed then and followed a sane energy plan, the current president probably wouldn't be spilling blood in the Middle East or calling for more nuclear power plants in response to rising gasoline prices. And the coal industry's abuse of Appalachia might no longer be cause for public outrage.

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