Valley fills, sludge spills,
flood chills and judge thrills
by Vivian Stockman
There we were, going about our business, pointing out to as
many people as possible that several aspects of mountaintop removal coal mining
are illegal, as well as utterly devastating to our forested mountains, streams,
mountain culture and our futures.
As usual, for a couple of decades, and up until early May,
most valley fills at mountaintop removal operations were illegal, but the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers continued to permit them anyway.
Yup, everything was just like usual. Late Thursday, May 2,
another round of deadly floods hit southern West Virginia, leaving nine dead,
hundreds homeless, schools battered, and roads and bridges pummeled so far,
an estimated $70 million in damage.
Several towns in McDowell County were wiped off the map.
Again, many residents said they believe the floods were worsened because
mountaintop removal and essentially unregulated timbering denude huge swaths of
forests. These folks didnt need to wait on the latest study to know that a
devegetated, mountain-scalped, valley-filled landscape doesnt absorb rain
runoff the way a lush temperate forest does.
Werent the national forests here established in the
mid-1900s after people connected the dots between heavy flooding and heavy
deforestation? (By mid-June, the WV Department of Environmental Protection was
under fire for blacking-out key information in a study of last Julys floods,
where the final damage bill was over $190 million. The study says, in part, that
mining and timbering can increase runoff by up to 21 percent.)
Yup, it was same old, same old. Early Friday, May 3, the
heavy rains sent 5,000 gallons a minute of sludge (including water, coal fines
and the chemicals used in treating coal for market) spewing out of a coal waste
impoundment near Gary, McDowell Co., WV, into the Tug River (the third major
sludge spill in as many years for the battered river). All told, the DEP
estimates "tens of millions" of gallons escaped. DEP warned downstream
residents that the entire dam could collapse with "catastrophic"
Since 1999, the DEP issued at least 26 environmental
violations for this impoundment, but the companies operating the impoundment
took no remedial action.
DEP could have, and obviously should have, shut down the
impoundment after just two violations in one year. (Newsflash: On June 11, a
line leading to an Arch Coal impoundment, at their "showcase" Hobet 21
mountaintop removal site leaked 25,000 gallons of slurry into a tributary of the
Little Coal River.)
Then, at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 3, Bush, Inc. illegally
changed a rule within the Clean Water Act, thus legalizing valley fills. Bush
made this change, despite hundreds of calls and letters from members of OVEC,
and other local and national groups, asking his Environmental Protection Agency
appointees not to make the change. He ignored a bipartisan letter from 57 U.S.
Representatives asking him not to make the change. He ignored the Senate
Environment and Public Works Committee request that he not act until after a
Congressional hearing on the change.
He ignored everybody but his friends and funders, the
Power-Polluters. Not only does his rule change give a big fat green light to
coal companies wanting to bury even more streams with even more rubble from our
former mountains, but this rule change also says, "Just Dump It In The
Waters!" to polluters nationwide.
Folks who care about the future of life on earth were worried
sick about the implications for one of our most precious resources water. We
were also worried about another precious resource that seems to be slipping away
democracy. We have hope that a legal challenge to Bushs rule change could
be filed and would most likely prevail. So far, there hasnt been an immediate
need for that challenge, thanks to U.S. District Court Judge Charles H. Haden
II, the bravest man alive.
On May 8, Haden publicly spanked Bush by reiterating his 1999
ruling (overturned on a jurisdictional question) that most valley fills at
mountaintop removal are indeed illegal, and that, ahem, Mr. Bush, only Congress
can rewrite the laws.
All this news focused the national spotlight on West Virginia
and Kentucky. Newspaper editorials railed against Bushs incredulous act and
its potential impact on the entire country. In the midst of all this, we also
learned from a Freedom of Information Act request by Charleston Gazette
reporter Ken Ward, Jr., that Bush, Inc., is attempting to hijack the long
overdue environmental impact statement (EIS) on mountaintop removal. Instead of
bringing to light the detailed information in the as-yet-unpublished EIS, such
as the fact that future mountaintop removal and timbering could obliterate about
1 million acres of our lush, biologically diverse forests, Bush wants to use the
EIS as a vehicle to provide a more streamlined MTR permitting process! (Be sure
to check out the special EIS
section on-line. So far, you cant read the EIS anywhere else. Help keep
independent newspapers alive subscribe to this paper!)
In 1999, after the first time Haden said most valley fills
are clearly illegal under the Clean Water Act, the coal industry and its
government friends did everything they could to overturn the ruling. They did
not succeed. This time, Bush tried to anticipate the judge and changed the law
Years of organizing and awareness-raising by groups like OVEC are paying off.
We have more friends than ever in Congress (though we still cant put the West
Virginia and Kentucky delegations entirely into the category of
"friends," to put it nicely) who are apparently appalled at what is
happening here and want to do all they can to stop the insanity. And, we have an
ever-growing coalition of local and national groups committed to ending mountain